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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution
The world of Western art music spent much of the 20th Century engrossed in an argument between modernists dedicated to the image of musical evolution as an ever-ascending lineage, and classicists who devoted themselves to selecting and preserving the best of a finished heritage. Both branches believed that they were engaging in the same sort of behavior as those who had actually created the European tradition, but they were right in only a limited sense. Each represented a experiment in specialization and the compartmentalization of effort; in effect, the differentiation of new musical subspecies from the common stock of the old. But by mid-century, neither side wanted much to do with their surrounding environment of folk and popular musics, and in this respect both were making a momentous departure from their parent tradition.
While high modernism embraced a utopian vision of progress detached from environmental interaction with outsiders, thus emphasizing only half of the evolutionary equation, performer-oriented classicism sought, within the boundaries of its own domain, to suspend the laws of ongoing evolution and the passage of time itself. Although both the laboratory and the museum were essential aspects of the old European tradition at its healthiest, in isolation neither one has proven to be as robust as their common ancestor. Work of excellence done in these still overlapping fields has not prevented them from presiding over a slow retreat from the days when their mutual predecessors could place an instrument in most homes, or turn out thousands for Beethoven's funeral.
But all ideological urgencies eventually wane, and the debate between the 19th and 20th centuries grows less compelling. Weary from its long dichotomous battle, the troubled world of "serious" music has begun to turn its attention towards an approach which was out of favor for decades: the idea that our living popular music is a candidate for a symbiotic relationship, rather than a rival to be defeated. 20th century tonal composition has maintained a version of this throughout its life as tolerated guest in the house of classicism, but the new revival of interest arises from a very different source. In its current incarnation this idea is a major constituent of the heterogeneous subculture sometimes known as the "downtown" new music scene, named after the formerly inexpensive neighborhoods in New York City where many of its practitioners once resided; including your essayist. Many people from around the world are familiar with this musical outlook, but not with the local designation "downtown". Perhaps we should follow critic Gregory Sandow's suggestion and borrow a term from the world of rock: "alternative" classical music. I should say at this point that most of my own work as a composer has occurred within this niche in the musical world, and the desire to understand the relationship between popular and serious musics is a desire to sort out my immediate surroundings.
This "downtown" coalition of the miscellaneous is even further removed from the regulating influence of the classical canon than "uptown" mainstream 20th century modernism has been. Since alternative art music traces its descent from a series of relatively unaffiliated individualists, with heavy doses of cross-cultural hybridization, attempts to manufacture a genealogy to rival that of High Modernism always seem a bit strained until they get to the appearance of minimalism. This stylistic group has been the success story of the alternative new music world, replicating and mutating in a fairly stable way since the late 1960's. From the look of things at the moment, the downtown melting pot may even have sprouted a new post-minimalist mainstream, and many participants continue to experiment with the explicit re-introduction of the living vernacular into the "classical" world. But far from being a radical idea born downtown in the 1970's, disseminated a decade later, and made nearly respectable a decade after that, this sort of symbiosis between popular and serious music has in fact been an utterly normal state of affairs throughout most of the history of the Western tradition.
Long after the classical tradition coalesced out of its simple sources and accomplished its seminal achievement of hybridizing sacred and profane musical forms, it continued to maintain boundaries porous enough to import and transform folk or vernacular musical materials. The mechanism was fairly automatic and self-regulating because the composers doing the importing and transforming were working with popular materials they had personally internalized, simply by being members of their own culture or travelers among its subcultures and neighbors. At its best this had little to do with ideological stance: the focusing emotions of a group belief might motivate a person to actively edit out the signs of his or her cultural vernacular, but leaving them in happens all by itself.
Nevertheless, the taboos against such references accumulated during the 20th century, and contemporary high culture still presents us with the rather odd spectacle of extinct folk dances appearing as respectable musical topics for serious composition, while living forms excite controversy. This controversy depends on an inherited set of mental habits poorly adapted to our world, and as this becomes more unavoidably apparent the process of unlearning them gathers momentum. Our current folk forms cluster around rock music, and like people of other times and places, we look for a glimpse of our own face mirrored in the very art music that we hope will draw us outside of ourselves and our daily concerns. This sounds paradoxical in a sentence, but not in the listening experience. The resolution of the commonplace and the unique within a piece of music is such a basic pleasure that extensive training is required to teach people not to want it, and the relative scarcity of that pleasure among the specialized descendants of classical music has left them clinging precariously to shrinking patches of survivable environment, at a time when the increased ease of communication and travel should be constantly opening up new avenues of dispersal.
All that is real in an artistic dichotomy like "serious / popular music" is generated by shifting human behaviors and ideas circulating within a cultural ecosystem, not by polarized, formal, and immutable categories. The language of evolution offers a useful set of tools for explaining the virtual lineages and environments of such concepts. One could begin at either end of current evolutionary debates and still come out ahead: we might follow Daniel Dennett and ask an adaptationist question: "What problem did this dichotomy solve, and how did it benefit those who first used it?" or think of Stephen Jay Gould and ask: "Given that it's there and too embedded to be discarded, what is this dichotomy good (or bad) for now?" I am convinced that a musical world accustomed to talking within its own circle would profit from either answer.
1 On this point, see Stephen Jay Gould's essays "Bushes and Ladders in Human Evolution", from Ever Since Darwin, 1977, New York, Norton; or "Life's Little Joke" from Bully For Brontosaurus, 1991, New York, Norton.
2 Antonio Damasio, 1994, Descartes Error. New York, Grosset/Putnam (chapter 10 p. 239). Descartes Error is not specifically about evolution, but about its outcome. Damasio's examination of how the mind/brain/body allows us to imagine the future describes the operating system which gives cultural evolution its unique qualities. Also, his overall point about the crucial role which emotions play in reasoning should be both gratifying and intuitively familiar to most artists.
3 Richard Dawkins, 1976, new edition 1989, The Selfish Gene. Oxford, Oxford University Press (chapter 11). This book is a central text in sociobiology, which sometimes suffers from the long and unhappy history of attempts to derive right wing political implications from knowledge about our place in the natural world. But the idea of memes is not necessarily responsible for the behavior of all of its relatives. For a brief and lucid summary of the concept, see also Daniel Dennett's 1990 Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 48.
4 Daniel Dennett, 1995, Darwin's Dangerous Idea New York, Touchstone, pp. 203-204. This book is a sweeping attempt to make a whole of biological Darwinism and its ethical, cultural, and philosophical implications. The determined attack on Gould as a threat to Darwinism may seem puzzling to outsiders.
5 As I was editing this essay, an article by Richard Taruskin appeared in the New York Times (9/24/97) in which he referred to classical music's concern with artistic pedigree and inherited texts as "vertical", versus the "horizontal" influence of recordings, which reflect a cross-section of what is available in our living culture, regardless of source. As far as I can tell, his "vertical" is essentially identical to my "linear", and his "horizontal" to my "lateral". I hope that this concept enters into common use, under whatever name survives the selection process.
6 Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, 1979, The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. B205, no. 1161.
7 Stephen Jay Gould, "Not Necessarily A Wing", from Bully For Brontosaurus, 1991, New York, Norton.
8 Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba, 1981, Exaptation: A Missing Term in the Science of Form, Paleobiology, vol. 8.
9 Ernst Mayr, 1988, "An Analysis of the Concept of Natural Selection", from Towards A New Philosophy of Biology (p. 99), Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
10 For several days, I thought this visual analogy was of my own imagining, but then I noticed that on p.192 of Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which I had read several months earlier, there is a similar visual image in a quote from Manfred Eigen's Steps Towards Life (1992 Oxford University Press). It is populated by genetic mutations, with different meanings attached to the hills and valleys in the terrain, and no miners clomping around its abstract topography in their dirty boots. Well, at least I get a good example of the exaptation of an idea as a consolation prize.