Self-Expression Or Cosmic Reflection?

When each of us starts out playing music, we are inspired by certain bands or musicians whose work resonates within us - something inside of us relates with, and feels touched by, the musician's craft. Whether it's the lyrics, the music, or even the image of the band - we were, as children or teenagers, inspired by it. This said inspiration was the trigger which gave each of us the idea of picking up an instrument and trying it out ourselves.

After we picked up the instrument, immediately we started attempting one thing: to create sound-waves that appear most pleasurable to our unique and individual mind. We didn't think, "now I want to learn whatever most people think is great." Nor did we think that our favorite bands created their music on such a foundation of falsehood and soullessness. No! We each, at this stage in our musical development, thought to ourselves, "I want to learn such-and-such songs, because I love them," or, "I want to experiment and come up with what sounds best to me - that which most articulately expresses my inner being." And we all believed that our favorite musicians and composers were expressing themselves when creating their art; that they were articulating through sound the deepest and most unique aspects of their being. In short, we believed that what they produced came from inside them.

In the process of entering the music "business", the development process as a musician is usually lost. Musicians shift their focus from what they like to what other people like, effectively stunting any further creative growth they otherwise would've had the pleasure of experiencing in the ensuing decades. In more than 99% of cases, this results in one of two things: either giving up music altogether and moving in misery into a non-music related profession; or playing for many ensuing years music that they themselves are instinctively repelled by. Why would anyone want to go down either road? That's just it - one of humanity's two most glaring faults comes into play here: nearsightedness (the other main fault being hypocrisy). With dollar signs in their eyes, every guitar-playing teenager or young adult purposely forgets what kind of music he likes, and instead adopts a false mindset of "what do other people like?" This approach, while working out to benefit the 0.1% to 0.5% of people who actually succeed using this soul-forsaking tactic, spells spiritual death for everyone else who adopts it. A man who once glowed with enthusiasm over his art becomes a gray husk after he has given up the creative activity that once was his passion.

The crux of the matter is a philosophical question: Should we musicians project our respective selves into the world (self-expression)? Or should we hold up a mirror and reflect back an exact image of the world (reflect the cosmos back at itself), in hopes that it will like what it sees?

To this question, I answer by saying that it is our inborn tendency to project our innermost being out into the world; to try to change the world according to our will. I say that whether it's through music or any other medium, we each have an innate drive to make this world more palatable to our unique tastes. The main purpose of creating and playing music, though, is self-expression - but not with the goal of self-expression consciously in mind during the creative process. The only time music is truly great is when it flows from the soul without any goal whatsoever. When composition, or playing, is executed in this wise, a human being is performing the highest level of expression that exists. The higher the consciousness of the creature, the greater his or her desire for self-expression (if he or she is an artist).

All artists (writers, poets, musicians, painters, sculptors, etc.) who disagree with this philosophy become forgotten in the annals of history because what they created was so run-of-the-mill that it didn't stand out, and was rightfully trampled under foot and forgotten (as most literature, music, and paintings become). The near-sighted individual does not havean eye on making an impact that will last long beyond his death, one that he'll be written about in history books for. The far-sighted individual seeks to do something meaningful in this life, whether he becomes reviled or adored. However, again - it is self-expression that is the loftiest of all artistic goals.

When I think of the bands and musicians that have influenced me (Rush, Black Sabbath, Stuart Hamm, Type O Negative, King Diamond, Danzig, Loreena McKennitt, Michael Harris, to name a few), I honestly believe that the bulk of their art comes straight from the heart. These bands did not sit around thinking about what popular trend they could latch onto in order to make a quick million. They each played the music that they felt inside, and the world received it well- even though none of the above musicians fit into any genre of music that has ever been a trend. And the musicians who expressed themselves and didn't "make it" loved every second of it and led rich, happy lives - being active performing the art that they loved, while maintaining a following, however small. Not so much can be said of the businessmen who forgot who they were at age 18, played music they dislike for six years, then at age 24 put down their instrument in shame - never regaining that sense of identity which is necessary in order to rekindle the creative force.

So, in this business we musicians find ourselves in, it is important to never give in. Never surrender an ounce of your identity for near-sighted and far-fetched goals. Remember that most, if not all, of the music that inspired you to begin with was written and played by people who hadn't lost sight of their identity, and who were expressing themselves. When you play, you should be projecting yourself (who you are) out into the world - not simply holding up a mirror and saying "See? This sounds just like all those other, more popular bands that you like." It is not true that you have to think of the listener when crafting your music. The fact that you like so many musicians who make a living on their music demonstrates that your tastes are compatible with a great enough number of people that, with the proper promotion, you can make a living on your own music, as well. After all, fanatic followers are created by true art - not by commercial garbage; and it is the core fan base, many of whom are fanatically devoted, who stick with a musician throughout his entire career, offsetting the leverage record companies, music press, and the entire establishment at large exercise over him.

In summation, there are countless guaranteed benefits of self-expression, and only one possible benefit of cosmic reflection (and of attaining said benefit you have a less than one percent chance).

It is my desire that this brief thesis shed light upon the matters concerned within this all-important subject that every one of us musicians faces every day. Many never approach their career from a philosophical and far-sighted standpoint; may this serve as a guiding light for each musician to find and cultivate his or her own unique voice. The higher the percentage of musicians who adopt this approach, the more enjoyable life will be - because the world will be filled with unique expressions of sonic art, instead of trend-followers churning out boring music that no feeling soul could ever appreciate.

Ben Kuzay is a solo artist and freelance bassist. He has played with countless bands, including Monstrosity, Wykked Wytch, and Joel Wanasek.

His debut CD is entitled "In The Halls Of The Punisher", while his second solo CD is called, "Perpetual Reign".

Ben Kuzay