1: I found this to be a very interesting and instructive story. How did you feel about your previous enjoyment of the music? While your engagement with the music obviously changed with your increasing knowledge, did that somehow invalidate the meanings and enjoyment you had previously had?
2: Does the idea of music being a 'universal language' mean that everyone everywhere needs/must draw the same experiences from a given piece or performance?
3: I would comment that while hearing a flat spoken language that I do not understand doesn't do a thing for me, I can engage on some level with pretty much any type of music. For example, the first time I ever heard Tuvan Throat Singing I went 'WOW' and immediately bought several CD's. Now, I am under no illusion that this music has anything like the meaning to me that it would to a Tuvan, and I actually have no interest in understanding the lyrics. I mean, if a given song speaks to me in such a manner that I feel all mellow and relaxed what do I care that it might actually be about Mongol Hordes ravaging a village, raping and enslaving the women and eviscerating the men, staking them out under a blazing sun to have their living guts pecked at by crows? (Got to love those Mongols!).
4a: The bigger question of interest to photographers, given that visual art is likewise a 'universal language', is to what extent should an artist predefine the reaction and meanings that a viewer draws from their work?
4b: Or is it simply enough that we hold up our end of an invited conversation, and as long as people are willing to take the time to engage with our work on some level and walk away feeling/thinking/knowing/... something that wasn't there before, we should be happy.
Ed: I took the liberty of numbering your statements so that I can address them without repeating the words. You raise questions that have been debated in the worlds of music and the visual arts probably since the first cave paintings, and they will be debated as long as there are creative people around this old planet. I will address these statements, and I emphasize that they are just my own thoughts...I am not trying to give definitive "answers." I relish discussions like this as long as people do not get doctrinaire, and divide into "camps."
1: As I learned more about, in this case, Indian music, my perceptions of it changed and I was able to appreciate it on a new level. However, what I did lose was the first response to what was the "newness" of the music to me. While I usually feel that what I gained is more gratifying than what I lost, sometimes I do wish I could hear it more naively again. But my greater "sophistication" does not at all negate the value of hearing the music in an untutored way. I remember my mouth dropping as a kid when I first heard Beethoven's 5th symphony. I had never heard (nor heard of) symphonies, much less Beethoven. I can now point to any phrase in the piece and show you how it relates to any other part of it, and I fully enjoy that. But even though I can still "get lost" in the sound of it, I would give my eye teeth to go back and re-experience it for the first time.
2: Even two musicians playing the same piece after years and years of learning and practice don't have the same experience or derive the same meaning from the music. And music is more abstract than spoken language, so what we have left is just the hope that something basically human is communicated, and let it mean what it will to each person that hears it.
3a: Related to my answer to "2," I have to say that thankfully, we are free to relate to music or any of the arts at the level we choose. I love Salsa, but my meager Spanish is often not sufficient to grasp the meaning of a song. Yet I feel the rhythm, hear the sonorities and find my foot tapping. Would finding out that the song was a commercial for Budweiser Beer make a difference? I don't know. But when I have taken the time to translate the words of some songs, I derived an additional understanding that I feel enriched my experience of the music. But sometimes, I just like to let the sound wash over me, completely unaware of the meaning of the words.
4a: The answer is that the artist (photographer, in this case) should "pre-define" what he or she wants the viewer to get, to the extent that that photographer chooses. Even then, what the viewer brings to the photograph is unique and not under the control of the photographer, any way. But if you are doing photography for advertising, you sure try to make that cake look appetizing, or that resort look like a getaway from work. There is no right answer to this, and there probably shouldn't be.
4b: Essentially, I feel that to whatever extent we want to express something specific in a photograph it is incumbent on us to do our best to convey our message. Yet we also have to remember that what the viewer brings to it is valid, and they may still have an experience quite different from what the photographer had hoped they would get when viewing the work. And, I think it is perfectly valid for us to make a photograph that we don't "understand" in terms of theme or story, but just wanted to make because something in the scene attracted us. And, if the viewer cmes away with any reaction whatsoever, I for one am glad.
I am 68 years old, and am now much more mellow about what art is or isn't supposed to be, and about what people are "supposed" to get out of it. But I still feel that for me, at least, it is a means of communication, and what is implied with that is that it is communication of something about me to somebody else who will find a responsive chord when viewing my photograph.
Thanks, Ed, for the engaging questions.