Trying to find meaning in music can be a tricky endeavor. It seems like most of us probably assume that music has meaning, even if we are not aware of what that meaning is, exactly. I think I spent most of my life, at least subconsciously, attaching meaning to music I was listening to or playing. And even as a composer, trying to write music that meant something felt, I think, like a natural reflex; at least some of the time.
Even as recently as 2008 I can remember composing works that were, to a degree, intended to be based on something other than the sounds and silences themselves, even though the basis for these works was probably just 'inspiration' rather than some sort of 'musical depiction' of something else. Somehow this idea of being inspired by something can often become entangled with whatever it is a composer is trying to do musically. You'll hear lots of composers talk about their works as if they are aural representations of a poem or a painting, or even some experience or emotion that they're trying to express. Perhaps not all of the time, but I, too, was definitely one of those composers. And then, something changed.
Like many composers, I became interested in the music, thoughts and writings of John Cage. The funny thing is, that I had discovered him many years before; but for some reason, it wasn't until about a year or two ago that I found something in his words with which I could really connect. In particular, some of his thoughts here, in his appearance in a documentary by Miroslav Sibestik (I'm sorry, but I don't know the name of this documentary).
This seemed, and still seems, to make so much sense to me. I felt like something so simple, yet so liberating, had suddenly become so clear. For some reason it had never occurred to me to look at sounds for what they were rather than some other attached meaning that had been imposed on them. From this point on, I began to feel strongly that there was a great potential for sounds to lose something important whenever I tried to attach some other identity to them. This approach has greatly improved the enjoyment and result of composing sounds, as well as improving the quality of time spent listening to music.
Of course, I still have many questions I would love to ask Mr. Cage, if he were still here with us. For example, if we try to enjoy sounds for what they are, without letting some other identity possess them, then how does that work with text? If a composer writes an opera, then, assuming that this Opera uses words, how are we to interpret the role these words may have played in the composition of the sounds that accompany them? From a listening perspective, it seems more possible not to mix the identities. We could just be hearing some sort of identity-harmony. But in their creation, it's much harder to believe that the text had zero influence on the sounds.
And of course I don't mean to suggest that any music which claims to be an expression of something is invalid or inferior or anything like that. I still find myself trying to absorb these thoughts by Cage. And I'm not sure there's a right answer here. I only mean to say that, for me, it is now more comfortable, whenever I sit down to compose, or whenever I listen to something, to try to see the sounds and silences in their own light, and not something I want to project onto them.