The Trouble with Autobiography

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by Nathan Cornelius

One of my biggest motivations for writing music is my desire to express feelings or images I’ve experienced in my life and share them with others. Until recently, I had thought the best way to communicate this to people listening to my music was to include a program note along with it mentioning the events that inspired the piece. Thus, I would write tantalizingly vague statements like, “As I was reminiscing about a conversation I had with some friends years ago…” or “Several years later, I had a dream about that trip, in which the details had been muddled…” However, I’ve begun to question whether this is an effective method of sharing the feelings behind my music with listeners. As I’ve been working this summer on another piece inspired by experiences from my life, I’m trying to think through how—or even whether—to speak about the music’s relationship to those experiences.

Thanks to some thought-provoking discussions in a seminar I attended, I’ve realized that specificity in program notes can actually hinder listeners’ appreciation of the work, in several ways. First of all, what moves us emotionally varies from one individual to another. Explaining the emotional impetus behind a piece could cause listeners to relate to it more closely, or they might be just as likely to dismiss it as quaint or irrelevant. Composers seem to be notoriously bad at predicting which way audiences will react to their disclosures.

More importantly, too much specificity in explaining the music limits the richness of meaning it may take on. While recent musicology has done much valuable work in undermining the intentional fallacy in music, most performers and conductors still seem to assume that the composer’s word is a reliable and complete source for determining the meaning of a piece of music. I don’t deny that the composer’s intentions are relevant to interpreting a piece, but I also believe that, as one of mentors liked to say, “Any great artwork will mean more than the artist could have intended.” Telling the audience in advance what I, the composer, was thinking robs them of the chance to discover their own connections, insights, and reactions to the music, which could ultimately endow it with many more layers of meaning than I initially envisioned.

In addition, many people seem to assume that any piece reflects to some extent the circumstances of the composer’s life or emotions at the time of composition. However, this assumption is simply not justifiable, even if the piece is genuinely autobiographical. Most of my pieces are based on events that happened weeks, months, or even years before I actually sat down to compose the music. The poet Wordsworth famously said that art comes from “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and “emotion recollected in tranquility,” but I tend to draw on a lot of recollection with little spontaneity. In fact, I believe that the deeper the emotion associated with an event, the longer it takes my mind to process it, and therefore the longer until I am free to draw from it in my creative work. But the time spent ruminating on these experiences, even the unsatisfying or disturbing ones, is a worthwhile investment, since after I have worked through them on a personal level, I can harness them into a powerful impetus for creativity.

Furthermore, what is to stop me from lying to my audience in the program notes? How could they possibly judge whether or not my explanation of the work is true? After all, I was the only person there when I wrote it. Music history is full of instances of composers strategically revising their account of their music’s genesis to tell a more dramatic story to the crowds. While not intending to stoop to such mercenary calculations, I am now more hesitant to simply blurt out the whole truth to the audience, knowing that the more they read into it, the less they can read out of it. So in striving to be authentic as a composer (and as a human being), how do I tell my future listeners something that resonates with what’s in my heart without limiting their freedom to experience the music?

I’ve recently been pondering this question in relation to one of my favorite composers, Gustav Mahler. Mahler prepared elaborate programs for most of his symphonies, complete with titles, subtitles, literary allusions, heroic narratives, and descriptions of nature. However, when the time came for his works to be performed, he didn’t necessarily release these programs to the public, in some cases only divulging them privately in letters to friends. In other cases, he was somewhat indecisive, premiering a work without a program and then adding one later, or publishing a program only to withdraw it. Much ink has been subsequently spilled over relating these programmatic narratives to the events of Mahler’s life, and scholars have identified purported programs for each of the symphonies in Mahler’s correspondence. These associated tropes, such as “the hero’s funeral,” “the three blows of fate,” “the farewell to life,” etc., are well known to Mahler aficionados today.

The moral of the story seems to advise composers to be circumspect in writing about their own music. If anyone still cares enough about your work to be reading about it in 50 or 100 years, anything you write about it can and will be found out. Every word you speak instantly escapes out into the world as from Pandora’s box, impossible to recapture. Even if you only disclose the secret meaning of a piece to your closest friend, and that person keeps it in confidence, you can be sure that after you are dead, future scholars (or ravenous program writers) will rifle through your letters and emails for any clues they can find. As the line from the musical Hamilton goes, “History has its eyes on you… You can’t control who tells your story.” While I hope I’m not as consumed with my own legacy as the character Hamilton is, I don’t want to prevent future listeners from enjoying my music for its own sake by saying something stupid about it now.

Thus, I’ve decided to stop going into much autobiographical detail in describing my music. I now write my program notes with an aim to stimulating listeners’ own emotions rather than fixating them onto specific ones of mine. In particular, I try to reserve first-person pronouns for basic facts of when and how I wrote the piece. For hinting at deeper questions like what the piece is “about,” I prefer to address the audience in the second person or just to leave pronouns out of it altogether and try to paint a picture without explicitly telling anyone to look at it. In fact, giving audiences images or impressions (in the sense of Monet or Debussy) as a point of departure seems more helpful than talking about my compositional techniques (which needlessly abstract things) or mentioning the allusions or influences I draw from (which are necessarily specific and therefore narrow the range of meaning).

I still intend to write music that comes from the deepest parts of who I am; I’m not sure I can do otherwise. But the music also needs space to speak for itself; after all, it can’t do otherwise either. I just have to learn how to not drown it out with my own babbling.


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