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Faculty of Music


Wednesday, 8 February 2017
5.00pm, Recital Room, Faculty of Music

Mark Evan Bonds

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The Composer as Method Actor

Precisely because it lacks words or visible images, music has always been regarded as a privileged venue for the expression of emotions. But whose emotions? Western responses to this question have changed radically and more than once since the Enlightenment. Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century critics and composers thought of expression as the objective representation of emotions. They agreed on the need to feel the particular emotion to be conveyed through music but acknowledged as routine the necessity for composers to conjure up some event or image that would help “transport” them into the desired state of mind. This approach is remarkably similar to what would later come to be known in the theater as method acting.

The notion of the composer as method actor receded quickly in the decades around 1830s, however, replaced by the belief that the ideal composition reflected its creator’s sincere and spontaneous innermost self. This reconfiguration of the perceived relationship between composer and work was driven by a convergence of new conceptions of the self, the rising prestige of the emotions, and the growth of a mass-market music culture, all of which helped foster the perception of music as a form of emotional autobiography. By interpreting difficult new works as the outpourings of a unique individuality, listeners were able to gain access to an increasingly diverse and challenging array of musical idioms. Composers, in turn, encouraged the notion of music as autobiography by advocating an aesthetics of subjectivity in their strategies of self-promotion and in their own writings on music.

Yet in the wake of World War I, this aesthetic collapsed almost as quickly as it had begun: many leading composers and critics returned to an outlook that openly acknowledged artistic expression—and art in general—as a construct. This renewed conception of expression as a detached, calculated artifice became a key element of modernist aesthetics, from the “New Objectivity” of the 1920s through the high modernism of mid-century.

The perception of a musical work as an outward projection of its composer’s innermost self has nevertheless proven remarkably resilient: even when acknowledged as a useful fiction, the notion of life-as-works and works-as-life retains a powerful hold on the Western imagination. The idea of the composer as method actor, in turn, continues to offer a counter-weight to the aesthetics of self-expression, even if it is rarely articulated as such.


The Colloquium series is the main opportunity for members of the Faculty of Music, researchers from other departments, and the general public to come together and hear papers on all aspects of music research, given by distinguished speakers from the UK and abroad. Colloquia are held on Wednesday evenings in the Recital Room of the Faculty of Music, West Road. Admission is free and all are welcome. Please arrive at 4.50pm for a 5.00pm start. Papers are followed by a discussion and a drinks reception with the speaker.

Wednesday, 8 February, 2017 - 17:00 to 18:00
Event location: 
5.00pm, Recital Room at the Facuty of Music