What Music tells us about Freedom

When improvising, you are free to do whatever you want, and when composing, you are constrained by rules and formal arrangements. But it's not that simple! I would like to approach the topic of "freedom in music" using two epochs as examples: the time around 1700, the generation before Bach, and the second half of the 20th century, where the topic of "freedom" was discussed in the "new music", the "avant-garde".

What Music tells us about Freedom

Around 1700

In the Baroque era, the art of improvisation was held in high esteem. But could one really play what one wanted? After all, one was dependent on a vocabulary of formulas in melody, figuration, harmony combinations and movement types that no one had invented themselves, but which everyone found in the musical language of their time. This already shows how strongly the individual possibilities of expression are determined by the building blocks provided by predecessors and contemporaries. However, there was enough freedom for individual reshaping of formulas, conventions, idiosyncratic combinations and surprising turns. What was important above all was a sensible harmonic sequence – and behind this lies the supra-individuality of the musical language.

We don’t know what improvisations sounded like at the time, but we can still get a rough idea, because composed music always included passages free of improvisation – at the time, we spoke of “stylus phantasticus”, whose most important representatives were Dietrich Buxtehude and Nikolaus Bruhns. This often looked like parts free of improvisation, in which the movement, figuration, vocal and chordal sections alternated, sometimes surprisingly, and were combined with fugues, which were naturally more structured.

It is interesting to note that in the course of his development, J.S. Bach turned away from this and treated the prelude and fugue as two self-contained movements, giving the prelude a much stronger structure through concise, individual motives that give the piece a very personal face. Did Bach think nothing of the freedom of the “stylus phantasticus”? He might have had the impression that the formulas had worn themselves out, were merely repetitive, and offered too little room for individual shaping. Bach turned the preludes into “character pieces” – more individuality through stronger structuring. Now this does not mean that Bach completely dispensed with conventions. But the work of composing allows for a completely different intensity of individual transformation and variation of formulas than spontaneous improvisation.

The composers of that time moved in a space of varying degrees of structure. Handel gives performers more room for improvisation in his arias and organ concertos than Bach, who composed out the ornaments. Nor did the boldest works of the “stylus phantasticus” lose their freshness when the conventions were sufficiently individually over-formed and originally combined. Music could swing like a pendulum between a greater degree of freedom (more dependent on conventions) and a seemingly lesser degree (but more structured with the chance of individual shaping).

Philosophical Intermezzo

How do we understand “the subject” of freedom – the person who wants to be free? For the understanding of what “subject” is, for the “subject constitution”, there are three models:

On the one hand, there is the extreme view that the ego should only see itself as part of a collective and be absorbed into it. Neither individuality nor freedom would play a role there.

The opposite pole would be the view of the individual as a self-contained unit, delimiting itself and feeling separate from the other. This attitude leads to thinking of freedom egoistically, without having to consider the effect of one’s own actions on other people, and in extreme cases to see the other only as a competitor or as a tool of one’s own interests.

In between there is the position of an “individuality in connectedness”, which knows how much everyone owes in their development to other people (“Man becomes I in the You”, says Martin Buber), and to what extent one’s own actions have an effect on others. Here, freedom is always linked to a sense of responsibility.

If we think back to the situation around 1700, it becomes clear that those who only string together formulas and conventions without any personal variation will produce a rather faceless and impersonal music. On the other hand, those who believe they can dispense with conventions altogether, who use tones only as isolated acoustic data without reference to other tones, will at best enjoy a strangely abstract freedom, but the music is likely to become lifeless, empty and incomprehensible. To think and implement this was reserved for the 20th century.

The third position is probably the most artistically productive: to know and use the conventions, but to transform them personally, to deal with the formulas in a creatively transformative way. A wide range is conceivable, depending on the focus. Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy” unfolds amazingly freely, as if improvised, harmonically bold, and the fugue is strictly structured, but in both movements conventions are perceptible in the background, of course in a very personal reshaping.

But nothing seems arbitrary. The secret of good music seems to be an active-passive surrender to what the respective situation suggests, in composition and improvisation, comparable to the Chinese concept of “acting without acting”. The Chinese pianist Xiao-Mei Zhu wrote about Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”: “I am surprised that I recognise essential elements of Chinese culture in them; as if Bach were the reincarnation of a Chinese sage.”

The West has always found it difficult to think of this “in-between” between activity and passivity, between freedom in the sense of arbitrariness in the sense of coercion. But in art we find it realised – neither as will nor as chance, but in becoming one with the flow of music: in this freedom is fulfilled.

After 1950

György Ligeti wrote in 1991, looking back on the discussions of the decades before: “If I submit completely to conventions, my product is worthless. If I stand outside any convention, it is meaningless. The renewal of the arts consisted in each case of a gradual modification of what already existed.”

Did “freedom” or “liberation” mean detachment from all relationships, as many thought at the time? The richness of Western music owes itself to a dense network of relationships: Tones come alive through relationship to a fundamental, a scale, a harmony, rhythmically through reference to a metre or a measure as a foil for the concrete rhythmic event.

Only after 1950, when tones were detached from all relationships, when they were defined only as individual acoustic phenomena determined by their physical properties, did the network of relationships dissolve. The tones were subjected to a rigid construction principle imposed on them from outside, a further development of the 12-tone technique, whose most important representatives were Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The isolated tones were now part of a system that was not audibly comprehensible because the tones in “serial music” could no longer develop a life of their own. Soon even the composers began to feel restricted in their freedom by this system because their scope for decision-making had become extremely narrow.

Then the call for freedom sounded – it came from the American John Cage, who wanted to free the sounds from the rule of the composers, which was understandable in view of the serial system. But he, too, thinks of the tones as freed from all relations and replaces constructive access with random operations. The tonal result was – shockingly for the constructivists – not so different from serial music.

Here we can see the parallel with the image of the human being who has detached himself from all relationships, who experiences himself as separate from the Other. Martin Buber has shown that the ego of such people remains empty inside because individuality becomes rich through relationships.

Freedom also means: the possibility of self-expression, of expressing oneself, of being able to experience oneself as effective, in freedom of opinion, in the ability to shape one’s own path in life. Music shows that you need others for this: without a common musical language, without a certain degree of conventions, it is not possible, because otherwise there is no counterpart left who could perceive the self-expression and respond to it. But if you only give conventions of yourself, you have not yet found yourself.

After the constructivist phase, the composers wanted to give the interpreters more freedom, because in serial music there was practically no creative leeway for them. They were now to be allowed to co-compose, as it were. This could look like the composer presenting a larger number of small sections, the order of which the performer could decide for himself. But do the different versions that are now possible really influence the listening experience? Even if one could compare several – the differences would remain trivial. And whether these choices allow the performer something like self-expression remains more than questionable. Ligeti wrote: “The composers are clever enough to grant the interpreters merely an apparent freedom.”

The problem is somewhat different with compositions that do not specify the tones and rhythms at all through graphic notation or only through verbal instructions. The performers do indeed have more freedom, but they remain dependent on the stock of formulas that this “post-serial” style of music provides and that hardly allow for individual over-forming, which sets narrow limits to the possibilities of self-expression.

Will and chance, rigid construction and arbitrariness are not the alternatives. Neither a construction imposed on the sounds from outside nor arbitrary-random decisions have any place in art. Only those who have practised the virtue of “acting without acting” come close to its secrets. Even if it was not called that in Europe, people knew about it. The composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari wrote that the brain must be “transparent and uncoloured at the moment of creation. The Indians call the same state of the heart: having an empty heart. This means: that only an empty heart (empty of partial interests) can give itself completely to a moment and thus create it to be the highest!”

Western culture has endangered itself on the one hand through the glorification of the dominant, dominating “I will” – in the arts as the cult of genius – and then on the other hand through the opposite extreme of renouncing subjectivity (one spoke of the “loss of the subject” and the “death of the author”).

Thinking of the I in terms of connectedness and rediscovering that “in-between” between activity and passivity will enable freedom to find its proper place in art again.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Share this article

Don't Miss Out

Would you like to receive updates on our latest articles, sent no more than once a month? Sign up for our newsletter!

Our latest articles

Article info

Date: April 20, 2022
Author: Prof. Dr. Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz (Germany)
Photo: ChrisgammaDE auf Pixabay CCO

Featured image: