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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

Stir Thoroughly, And Not All At Once

by Scott Johnson

The Counterpoint Of Species, 1997

  1. Introduction
  2. A Strobe Light And A Staircase
  3. Splitting The Adam
  4. Ideas And Organisms: What Translates, And What Doesn't
  5. Stir Thoroughly, And Not All At Once
  6. Growing A Purpose
  7. Uses And Niches
  8. The Fools On The Hill Go Down In The Valley
  9. The Urge To Procreate
  10. Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, The In-Laws, And The Kids [Hybrids, Thoroughbreds, and Survival]

     The very ease and speed with which human culture invents, imitates, and reinvents the results not only makes us the biosphere's speediest test-driver of adaptive strategies this side of the virus, but also the chief manufacturer of non-adaptive byproducts: seemingly unpurposeful daydreams, digressions, pleasures, and play. If you consider the drifting details within a spreading rumor, the real wonder is that we have managed to come up with a few ways of making any accurate copies at all. In the genetic world, most mutations are deleterious; and although our brains provide us with a better-than-random success rate by allowing us to picture possible outcomes, our rapidity of cultural drift and experimentation requires a correspondingly good set of brakes.

     Our desire for surprise and novelty is balanced against our limited time and energy, and the need to filter the world and focus our attention. Social loyalties which stigmatize influences from less respected sources are one of these filters. Another is that old enemy of avant-gardism, the suspicion that something which is not understood is either a hoax or laughably inept. These conservative and skeptical tendencies within the attitudes of individuals and cultures are analogous to the body's immune system, whose roving T-cells seek and destroy invaders from without and dangerous mutants from within. They provide social stability, as well as a cast of villains for our modern culture's creation stories; like the French academic painters of the late 19th century, whose ponderous pursuit of perfection set itself up for an upset by brash and lively interlopers like the Impressionists and Fauves. Defenders of tradition who wish to maintain continuity and avoid such catastrophic collapse are wise to approach challenges on their merits, and resist the tendency to think of their current array of genre definitions as essential and eternal, when in fact they are only convenient ways of dividing the world into teachable and discussible sized chunks.

     But genre definitions are more than mere artificial constructs, because they create feedback loops with the real world. The niches they outline within the culture attract people who are eager to participate, and who voluntarily sort themselves into the available categories; but who also insist on continually customizing genre boundaries and job descriptions to fit their personalities and the changing circumstances. These divisions are neither completely foolish and arbitrary, nor particularly optimal or exact. They are simply what 's available, and their proper use requires flexibility and occasional vandalism.

     The western classical tradition was so successful at binding together a fairly large group of cultures within a fairly consistent set of practices that it is easy to forget that it began its recorded life as a patchwork of regional styles and segregated genres, with strong feelings about the religious qualities of the human voice, and powerful taboos about when and where and within what style or technique it was appropriate to blend them with instruments. If we think of our own preconceptions about the proper place for saxophones or electric guitars, it is not all that difficult to imagine what such social conventions might have felt like, but we have nothing quite like the philosophical weight once accorded to such questions of passing taste. A thundering Romantic finale combining chorus, percussion, and pitched instruments would have seemed an abomination to many of the originators of the tradition.

     So the assembly of a common practice was accomplished through gradual and successive transgressions against common sense; against gut instincts which said this technique or sonority does not belong with that one. Much of this could be accomplished by Trojan Horse incursions; "barbarous" Turkish percussion, imported into Viennese classical pieces for sound color and cultural references, gradually lost its exotic connotation and gained a new European one. But it retained the sound color, which became a permanent part of the orchestra. The ultimate success of these constant borrowings and appropriations depended on a balance between a willingness to accept outside influences as well as to redefine native ones, and the presence of a solid-enough core of common practice to lend structure and to suggest uses for imported material. But that core itself was constantly being changed; so much so that eventually Europe's modern descendants bore less resemblance to their earliest notated sources than those sources did to the foreign influences of their own time, with whom they at least shared an environment, if not always a direct lineage.

     Although its center may shift over time, the core of a common practice can look very stable at a given moment, particularly after a good invention or synthesis has opened up a new plateau of as yet unexhausted possibilities, and everyone seems to be converging on the same sort of work site. But the stability is always temporary. The only unchanging quality inherent in a set of core practices is its ability to unify and mediate between its constituent parts, each of which were once either absent or very different from their current state. Referring to genetic change, Daniel Dennett says that "nothing intrinsically counts as a canonical version of anything."4 because of the difficulty in picking significant mutations out of the imperceptible gradations in an evolutionary chain. The difference between a mother and child is too tiny and microscopically diffuse in its details to afford us a clean point where we can announce a species break, and in any case it is only retrospectively that we can decide which change was a significant one. Identifying significant change is considerably easier and more meaningful in a cultural tradition, because human invention is able to get away with wider and more immediately recognizable leaps and variations than nature's hit or miss, thanks to our ability to sort through the probable success of possibilities before committing to them.

     Not only are we occasionally capable of quickly picking out a significant cultural mutation, or a cluster of them which work well together, but once found, we are eager to canonize them, build genres around them, and produce variations as soon as possible. The modern world, with its access to a long history, has drawn certain conclusions from observing this process. It is always on the lookout for promising new progenitors to bet on. In this sense the entire growth of avant-gard traditions in the Western arts looks very much like an attempt at the gradual institutionalization of foresight, or at least of a selection process for isolating it.

     Maintaining a tradition during a string of transactions with local mutations and foreign imports requires a continuity of practice and outlook, but that inherited core is itself inherently composite; the product of a history of just the sort of transactions which it is now supposed to provide an anchor for. The only consistent purity of means or goal to be found between the various generations in a tradition resides in individuals, and their personal determination to pursue the emotional expression and experiences which the various genres of music were designed to deliver. This includes, of course, the emotional pleasures of simply manipulating musical materials in the most abstract way; not all music needs to refer outward. But much music prefers to.

     Composers like Ravel, Milhaud, or Stravinsky who participated in the spread of jazz-influenced pieces during the 1920's and 30's didn't get their jazz at all right, but then again they weren't really trying in any serious sense, because that would have required improvisation. They were only making a picture of their surroundings, and its inclusion changed the nature of the post-classical music which followed. Since that time the 20th century was filled with messages sent between the European classical tradition and jazz, as populist as Ellington or Bernstein, or as arcane as Gunther Schuller or Anthony Braxton. But jazz and classical practice have rarely fused in equal parts, and the primary background of each of these composers is usually one or the other. Another approach currently thriving in a related territory is that of "downtown" and European improvisers. Their group and individual improvisations relate to jazz, but only occasionally follow its forms, while frequently referring both to 20th century avant-gardism and popular music. Regardless of whether this trend has speciated into a genre unto itself or not, it represents another extension of a long dialogue.

     Given that both jazz and the post-classical traditions are themselves composed of many interleavings of invention and borrowing, why has the territory between them, which has been explored so many times from so many angles, been so difficult to establish permanent settlements in? The clearest and most commonly mentioned reasons involve the different sets of skills involved in composing and improvising, and the lack of a common practice; both of which are generally true, although solvable by talented individuals. These traditions are highly invested in complex characteristics which may not translate easily even when they are related: a classical virtuoso able to thread a way through harmonic change along the most perilous of composer-made paths will most likely lose his or her footing when first called upon to improvise a steady line through a jazz deployment of those same harmonies. Both sets of skills can be learned, but as long as they exist in separate toolboxes in the outside world that will never be a dependably common choice. But someone from either of these specialties could probably work up a respectable accompaniment for a popular song, so long as they understood stylistic nuance, thus blending their discipline with a simpler one. And either one could play music in their own field which required only a moderate influence from the other, not full command of an entirely new genre.

     So if we step back and think in general about the convergences of lineages, we can imagine a sort of sliding scale of the practicality of influences, based on the relative complexity of the two genres involved, and the relative ambitions of a given merger. A 50/50 cross-pollination from two complex fields, such as the jazz and classical traditions we've been talking about, is the most ambitious and the most risky of all, as would be a hypothetical convergence of Japanese Gagaku and Indian classical music. But compositions incorporating a more modest influence, we'll say 20/80, are so common on the modern world that High Modernism's distaste for even that level of eclecticism stands in sharp contrast to its environment.

     Genres of popular music, on the other hand, are quite capable of near-50/50 hybrids between equals, simply because there are so many variations of nearly the same level of complexity which use nearly the same harmonic, rhythmic, and structural materials. A small stylistic tic, inaudible to outsiders, can provide the rock cognoscenti with a clue to a new band's esthetic lineage and lateral borrowings. Furthermore, since the advent of recording nearly all such lineages are virtual, with no personal contact whatsoever between "master and student". This provides the greatest difference between rock and traditional folk musics: rock styles may begin as local phenomena, but they are quickly scouted out, evaporated up into the corporate clouds, and rained down across the country or the world. The transformation of rock and related forms into a corporate folk music for the corporate folks that we have become contains more than a little irony, given the rebellious impulses at the heart of nearly every interesting sub-genre.

     But rock doesn't put up quite the same resistance to assimilation into modern post-classical composition that jazz does, because it has not had the time to evolve as far away from its folk sources, or to come up with a self-enclosed, fine art tradition of improvisation with the level of complexity and specificity found in jazz. And so, thanks to the very simplicity which excites so much high-brow scorn, rock might offer to the serious music world a relationship which could conceivably become similar to the long-lost relationship that the European tradition once had with its local folk musics. But unlike the mid-century style exemplified by Copland, which set American-sounding themes within European techniques and orchestrations, new serious music incorporating rock arrives with a whole new set of electric instruments, technologies, and timbres in tow; and its prolonged success would mean enormous changes in the sound and production of serious music.

     Some composers interested in this field have called attention to the contrasts between their sources, while others have moved more incrementally, but over time these differences may not matter very much. To make a simple picture: if a generation of pieces influenced by a previous 20/80 merger engage in another 20/80 merger, their descendants' share of the "pure" heritage is down to 36/64. The next 20/80 change leaves 48.8/51.2, and thus successive approximation has landed us in 50/50 territory by another route. Obviously these arbitrary numbers are inadequate to describe the inexact nature of different people's mental "copies" of shared ideas, the inventive personalization built into human activities like art, and the unpredictable eddies of nuance where personality touches culturally shared style, but they do draw an outline of the sort of process which alters a living genre. Just as 20th century percussion pieces can in some way trace their genesis back to the Trojan Horse importation and later de-ethnicization of Turkish military percussion, then so might a future form spring from the borrowings, novelties, or heresies of our day, in a way which is not immediately apparent.

     This is not to say that most hybrid mutations won't perish without establishing a lineage; they probably will. The more distant the leap they attempt, the greater their mortality rate is likely to be, pulled down by the lack of an internal commonality of practice, or by the attacks of their culture's purist "T-cells". But lateral dispersal is inevitable in a complex culture, and inheritance by direct lineage alone is increasingly unlikely.5 Even an abandoned approach can leave its own home genre changed by the effort, and possibly point out an escape route from an overly stylized dead end. Only time will tell if any of our current experiments in gap-bridging will result in a permanent span, but if they do, the last gesture will be more like dropping a keystone into a nearly completed arch than building a bridge from the ground up.

     The internal influences of popular culture have probably had a greater effect than external imports on the inventions of most composers, if for no other reason than their sheer unavoidability by anyone who leaves the house or scans the media once in a while. But although Western classical music may not have met up with any single external tradition which pushed its center of gravity far enough to alter central tenets in areas like notation, harmony, or basic performance practice, the cumulative consequences of world influences have increased as travel and communication have became easier and more routine. In particular, cross-cultural translation was the rule among the early Minimalists, with significant influences appearing from India, Japan, Bali and Africa, and elsewhere. LaMonte Young and Terry Riley seriously studied Indian music, and Steve Reich found a model for his brand of shifting polyrhythm in African drumming, while Phillip Glass tells how a friend's verbal description of counting systems in Indian classical music provided him with an inspiration that was as much invention as influence. In these latter cases, hybridization allowed an end run around High Modernism's prohibition against a stable pulse with a recognizable tie to dance forms. This has opened the gates on our musical culture's renewed ability to find interesting materials in its own popular backyard.

     This end run around the insoluble and ingrown battle between modernism and classicism has led to numerous attempts to further hybridize minimalism with popular influences, or academic modernism, or romantic orchestral traditions, or any combination of the above, as required by any individual composer's desire to make a whole out of their imagination and their favorite tools and inherited musics. While the juries may be out for some time on all of these hybrid forms, it's clear that the logjam which had piled up around the clogged juncture between the 19th and 20th centuries is finally clearing as the 21st approaches.


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.