Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

*Wieland Hoban, whose piano piece when the panting starts, played by Ian Pace at The Warehouse, intrigued me, has kindly sent Musical Pointers two articles for publication, and a CD of some of his chamber music,which has filled out the picture (one work is insufficient to 'place' a composer)

Amateur & Expert is particularly pertinent for those of us enthusiasts who endeavour to remain open to difficult new music without the expertise of trained critics who specialise in this area, and it relates, perhaps, to my article Only a Website. (Editor)

Amateur and Expert Wieland Hoban

Perhaps all those who work creatively - be it artistically, intellectually or in the crafts - can be classified according to two categories: amateur and expert. This is not to say that membership in one must exclude the other; perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak not of categories, but rather of characteristics present or absent to an infinite number of degrees in each of these persons.

What is the amateur? Etymologically speaking, he is defined by love (root: Lat. amare , "to love"), by a personal passion for his subject. His terminological equivalent, the dilettant, derives his title from the Latin delectare , meaning "to enjoy, to engage in leisure". The latter term connotes more strongly the post-Enlightenment aristocrat (or grand bourgeois ) and patron of the arts; for this reason, we shall prefer the former term.


As for the expert, the name of his Latin forefather, the expertus , is formed from experiri , "to experiment, try out"; for some reason, despite the lack of distinction from the activity of the amateur, the expert's experiments have always been seen as educated ones, as those of one who knows what he is doing, while the amateur merely enjoys, possible expertise being acquired only with the passage of considerable time, more as a by-product than an end in itself.


These definitions, while containing the roots of the qualities to be examined here, only scratch their surface. Considered in detail, they embody notions derived from socio-cultural structures that have long been, and will for some time continue to be, significant in our culture. Less so in non-Western cultures, which would appear (at least traditionally) to bypass the category of the hobby enthusiast, instead reserving possible fields of amateur interest for the select few; the more "primitive" the culture, the more the role and knowledge of the expert seem sacred, and thus inaccessible to the uninitiated. In the "primitive" stages of our own civilisation, indeed, the privileged status of literacy influenced centuries of social development. As the select few were clerics (and aristocrats), their monopoly kept the common people away from genuine knowledge of religion or the arts, which could thus only be received in an officially-approved, rationed form.


It can therefore be viewed as a vital civilisatory development that, gradually, this privilege was distributed among more individuals, and that, in the course of the Enlightenment's move away from theocracy, the expert's knowledge was hypothetically - still constrained by issues of class and propriety, of course - available to all. Despite these social barriers, however, it was still possible for such figures as Kant and Fichte, the sons of a saddler and a wicker-worker respectively, to become legendary representatives of Enlightenment ideals. Despite the elite subsequently also formed by such parvenus, their ascent to an expert status different from that of their expert craftsmen fathers demonstrates a gradual move towards a more democratic social order.


We should avoid representing this in too idealistic a light; with the increase of amateurs there was more occasion for the experts - whether out of insecurity in the face of a threat to their privileged status, simple arrogance, or a justified wish to preserve the ideals of their discipline from dilution - to look down upon those who now not simply lacked, but also attempted to gain their knowledge. This led to the amateur's demotion from an enthusiast to an incompetent charlatan.

  It is this status of incompetence that shall here be taken as a prime characteristic of the amateur. He embodies all that is noble about incompetence; not the dangerous quack who poisons the common folk with hare-brained, home-made medicinal recipes, but rather the devotee bent on exploring something he is not in control of. For expertise, even without the social power of mediæval times, has always been a means of control, whether of others, oneself, or life in general.


To idealise is commonly to do one of two things: either to create an illusion, or to transform the ideal into something else as the only means of fulfilling the expectations of idealism. In order to plead for a particular form of amateurism, it is necessary to avoid, as far as possible, presenting it in an idealised form, yet while developing an emphatic and espousable notion of the same. We must avoid replacing one god with another; considering how Western culture moved from theocracy to rationalism, or how Nietzsche murdered Christianity only to replace it with a religion of aestheticism, such a substitution must be viewed as counter-productive, or at least counter-intentional. And who, despite reckoning with a rejection of their intentions, would intentionally operate counter-intentionally (outside of purely metaphysical matters)?


Although the foundation for the exposition of emphatic amateurism has now been laid, there is an urgent need for greater specificity. Are we dealing with a social phenomenon or an aesthetic one? While the anthropological background is clear, the aim of this examination is to develop an aesthetic principle, not a political manifesto. Let us therefore turn to the realm of the arts in general, and to Samuel Beckett in particular. Despite his fame, his presence in many an educational curriculum, one might wonder whether the ideological implications of his work are truly grasped by all who read it. His novel Molloy must surely be dwelt on, for it is here that we find an ideal of amateurism developed with both absolute stringency and baffling artistry. The division into two parts, two narrators, two opposites is integral, being here a prerequisite for the opposition of expert and amateur. As much as we may emphasise that these two should be seen more as qualities than absolutes, the conflict between them is an undeniably violent one. Precisely this brutality is emphasised by Beckett, who nonetheless manages to avoid the smoothness of a dialectical synthesis. For Molloy and Moran never meet; Molloy disappears from the narration, while Moran takes over Molloy's role. Moran's uncertainty as to whether his target is called Molloy or Mollose demonstrates that Molloy represents less a person than a principle, an essence; the fact of Molloy's legendary, nebulous status as perceived by Moran underlines this. In this light it seems an obvious choice for Beckett to prevent Moran from encountering Molloy; Moran is destined not to find him, but rather to become him.


Perhaps we should turn our attention to these two characters. In Molloy we find a man embodying every kind of incapability: he is a cripple, a half-wit - albeit a bizarrely eloquent and educated one - fairly insane, probably senile, sexually deviant (or perhaps only ignorant), unclean, and by his own account extremely old. He has no profession, no social or family circles, no apparent abilities - aside from highly obscure, personalised ones such as rotating sucking-stones in the many pockets of his coat - and no particular raison d'être or goal apart from finding his mother, though his failure to do so before her death seems not to disturb him. In short, Molloy embodies in every respect an antithesis to civilisation, a mockery of the qualities a functional society aspires to. At the same time, his wretchedness (though he seems not to perceive it as such) makes him an object of pity, and allows the reader to see in him a symbol - albeit a perverted one - of human frailty.


Moran, on the other hand, is in many respects a model citizen: he is rational in the extreme, disciplined, diligent, educated, has a good physical constitution, a son (though no wife), attends church - albeit out of mere routine - and fanatically enforces a codex of ethical and logical principles in pedantic detail - sincerely, not out of spite - in the upbringing of his son, who can never meet his standards, and is thus a source of great consternation for him. The fact of his obscure profession as a secret agent involved in cryptic cases is the exception to his respectable middle-class status, but corresponds to the abnormal extent of his passionately rationalist ideology. Knowledge, discipline, routine - these are the things that Moran relies on to maintain control over his life. Without them, he is nothing.


Before finishing the book, one could suspect that no more will occur than a presentation of the two counterparts with no further development; this would not be an altogether unfeasible idea. The fact that Beckett chooses to send Moran on a fruitless quest for Molloy, in the course of which he is to lose his son, his physical strength and mobility, even his sanity and ultimately his tidy household (after his housekeeper has given up hoping for his return and left) - the fact that he chooses to rob Moran of his control, his tight hold on his life, clearly demonstrates an intention. His pedantry is transformed into the bizarre fastidiousness of Molloy as he ponders obscure theological questions. Irrationality has the last word, the expert life is exposed as a fallacy, while the deranged Moran, musing in his overgrown garden, watching the birds, seems to represent a certain oneness with nature, much as the setting of Lear's insanity in the stormy heath suggests that to lose one's mind is in fact to free oneself from the trappings, the falsehood of civilisation.


This is an example of a literary glorification of the amateur; what are the equivalent parameters in a musical context? Musical expertise has various facets - there is the expert performer, the virtuoso, able to meet any demands to his instrumental technique; the expert composer, versed in all conventional forms and able to produce an eight-part fugue at the drop of a hat; the expert musicologist, with knowledge of infinite manuscripts, antiquated editions, symphonic key-relations and the modulational trademarks of all significant composers. What is the aim of their expertise? They use it to preserve cultural values and artefacts precious to them; they use it to bring these - whether a concrete work under scrutiny or the principle of immaculate technique - to a form of perfection. Certainly there are performers who record the same work three times, hoping each time to uncover aspects they had previously neglected; but this is surely not the rule. Alongside these idealistic motives is another: that of control. Their expertise offers the experts a clearly defined, highly respectable status; the stereotype of the unhinged Romantic artist is located outside of this realm, for he is less an expert than a prophet. Such a status gives them control and self-affirmation, regardless of whether vanity or modesty are native to their characters. At the same time, they must exercise enormous self-control to retain the control over other people and things inherent to their status; if this control falters, they face a fate comparable to that of Moran.


But we should not be unfair to the experts; it would be pernicious to question their integrity and propose that only the amateur truly loves the material he engages with. Indeed, this is not even the point. For the question is rather whether one chooses to act out one's love as an expert or an amateur, as one in control of its consequences or one vulnerable to any unforeseen developments it may occasion. The amateur, theoretically, can become an expert; he can develop his own individual form of expertise, or, less commonly, attain conventional expert status by catching up on such training, though such converts encounter many obstacles among the institutional conventions of expertise. It is surely more difficult for the expert to become an amateur in his own area of expertise, for to do so he would have to unlearn what he has devoted so much effort to training; a challenge of this sort is frequently considered by experts to be beneath their dignity. It could, however, be an opportunity for remarkable discoveries, ones which could allow the expert to transcend his own conventions. Of course, an expert need not be entirely conventional; the great experts of history were not machines, but rather creative individuals with expertise at their disposal. But what might they have unearthed through an occasional foray into amateurism? Does Benjamin not write that poetry can communicate little to those who understand it?


There is another form of conventionalism, this time in the realm of the amateur. Occasionally, one finds those who glorify their own auto-didacticism in a way reminiscent of the ideal of the self-made man. Answerable to none, masters of their own destiny, unconfined by any conventions, they proceed from one discovery to the next, climbing the pinnacles which the experts have not even seen for engrossment in their traditions. This is indeed an ideal close to our notion of the amateur; it bears the hallmarks, however, of precisely that which is being criticised in its expert manifestation. Such an amateur can no longer remain one, as the mastery of his own conventions has made him too an expert. He lacks the humility to remain an amateur, and perhaps wishes to avenge his exclusion from the expert realm through the creation of a realm of counter-expertise. In principle, therefore, this amateur is merely an expert in disguise.


If we follow this method of argumentation to its logical conclusion, it would appear to lead to a perpetual circle of self-destruction: every amateur, once trained in his own methods, becomes an expert, able to retain his amateur status only through a mutilation of his expertise. Then any form of artistic background experience and craftsmanship would be no more than a guarantee for failing in one's amateur ambitions. What solution can there be? How can the amateur remain one without falling prey to a compulsive self-renunciation? Perhaps it would be a step towards this to recognise the amateur's expertise as a possible component in a more fundamental amateurism; if the amateur can avoid conversion to an expert only by destroying his individual abilities, the resulting development cannot be an honest, merely a neurotic one. If, however, the amateur with a certain expertise in his area of amateurism chooses to draw on his personal expertise in a search for a new amateurism, he may be able to subvert it. The amateur is not, therefore, defined by his lack of expertise so much as his attitude towards it; he must see all expertise as a transient phase in a journey that can never end. Each stage of this journey will be defined by areas of expertise and the strategies that he can develop to overcome them, with the goal of developing an instinct - not a compulsion - for self-subversion. Once the amateur's inner forces of amateurism and expertise have learned to perpetually negate each other, to ensure that neither can ever be in control of its ultimate status, but rather only contribute to an unforeseeable outcome, he may well have found a method by which to retain his amateur status. But only, of course, if this method is itself open to negation.


Wieland Hoban

*Recordings received:

Wieland Hoban Chamber Music 1999-2002

Hedone (Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin) 2.
Doppelte Wahrheit (Ensemble Mozaic/Enno Poppe)
Flux (Reservoir)
Jormungandr (Ensemble Surplus)
The Very Image (Reservoir/Mikel Toms)
Epilog 1 (String trio of the Musikhochschule Frankfurt)


© Peter Grahame Woolf