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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, The In-Laws, And The Kids [Hybrids, Thoroughbreds, and Survival]

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]

     For most of its history Western art music was remarkably adept at absorbing, abstracting, and exploiting both outside influences and mutations in its local folk musics. As a multiple-use, multi-national tradition, it was able to survive profound change for centuries and still maintain the musical equivalent of a Pax Romana, but the 20th century experiment with fission into several specialized branches was probably inevitable as this very success began to generate too much information to fit comfortably between one set of ears. But this has caused as many problems as it has solved, and only time will tell if they can re-converge into something resembling dialects of a workable common language, or if they will be able to speak across divisions within a heterogeneous culture and eventually repopulate the fragmented or abandoned habitat of their ancestor.

     Much of the old tradition's ability to speak to non-specialists by producing direct emotional experiences has now been bottled and shipped to Hollywood, much of its historical capacity for complexity has been condensed and stored in academia, and much of its propensity for synthesis and absorption has collected within the downtown wing of new music, after varying degrees of hybridization with modernism's experimentalist spirit. Here, some of what remains of the European tradition's ability to forge popular styles into unexpected forms mingles with experimentalists from the self-supporting world of jazz, and with the homegrown avant-gards that periodically branch out from rock and roll, which in its more commercial forms is our culture's real folk music. Finally, there is classical music proper: the actual works written while the tradition was engaged in its vigorous balancing act between intellectual, emotional, and practical impulses. This music survives as our culture's most common form of art music, but it is not of our culture. It's beautiful, it's borrowed, it's a bit musty, and it's gradually withdrawing into the museum of humanity's past achievements, while its offspring and their new in-laws squabble over the inheritance.

     Each of these factions has inherited a portion of the functions once served by the classical tradition, from the creative to the economic, but none have inherited the whole. No currently living segment of the field of composed music is fully analogous to the European art music of recent centuries, and a new cultural organism capable of filling that niche cannot be put together using only the leftover pieces of the old, because one very big piece is missing: the extinct popular musics which constantly fed "serious" music with raw material for its abstractions and transformations. This vital element needs to be found among the living. The engine that drove 19th century European music to its continuing worldwide acceptance (limiting our discussion here to canon, not cannon) wasn't solely its pure, abstract triumphs of functional harmony or elaborate structure. The classical repertoire also grew strong on the isometric tensions between its intellectuality and its continual absorption of folk musics, with their conventionalized portrayals of common emotions.

     Ironically, only the world of jazz and improvisation comes close to approximating the structure of the bygone European musical ecosystem, in the sense that jazz still encompasses a complete range of simple and complex musical uses under one roof. Even the most technically advanced improviser retains an ability and a feel for playing the blues, which is both an historical source for jazz and a living folk music that now survives primarily as a branch of rock. This has made it a forerunner in a second and even wider way: the electrification of the blues during the 1950's is now being mirrored in scores of folk musics around the world. Local popular forms worldwide have been displaced or forever changed by the phenomenal success of American pop music, with its blend of African rhythmic sensibility, European harmony, and electronic technology. But far from spelling doom for serious music, as worried devotees of the Western tradition often fear, this trend offers potentially fertile conditions for the incubation, on a global scale, of new art musics which have the hope of becoming as successfully adapted to our world as the classical tradition was to its own.

     What would contemporary "serious" music sound like if it incorporated the commonplace musical materials of our culture as readily and extensively as Bach or Mozart did with their own? Early returns are already in, but if this becomes a conventionally acceptable question, most answers probably won't cruise anywhere near the speed of Ligeti. But however odd it might seem, the existence of a certain percentage of unsuccessful but earnestly well-intentioned attempts (as opposed to cynically market-driven ones, of which there is generally no shortage) would be a clear sign of a healthy and thriving musical culture. A figure like Brahms might be seen as a very large animal perched at the tip of a complex musical food chain; a creature who could not have thrived without the environment created by millions of clumsier claws scuttling across the parlor pianos which were a fixture of 19th century middle class homes. An omnivore like Schubert could work both ends of the system, penning popular parlor pieces and lofty symphonies alike. Theirs was a period when serious and popular, professional and amateur music-making were related dialects; is it completely coincidental that this very music continues to dominate our concert halls? As we move farther and farther away from that vanished world, our intuitive connections with the sounds and forms of 19th century classical music fade, but the work has outlived its culture because it grew up in, and created around itself, a robust musical ecosystem. It developed conventions for connecting a full range of human emotions to a huge store of musical techniques. The tradition was both adaptive and complex; a unified field theory which provided one of humanity's high water marks before it began to choke on the repetitions and reactions engendered by its own success.

     In contrast, the passing century's more insular art music traditions accepted the loss of the parlor pianos and tended away from such generalistic endeavors, and towards a more partitioned view of the relationship between compositional problem-solving and emotional intent, often informed by a keen sense of dualism between high and low culture. Philosophically defensible or not, these distinctions have had the practical effect of creating an atrophy of dialogue between cause and effect, between the architectural and communicative aspects of music. Our categories shunt young composers towards the academy or the marketplace, experimentation or communication, structure or emotion. In effect, the 20th century seems to be preparing to send its composers walking into the 21st with their choice of either a strong left leg or a strong right one.

     These attitudes have had profound repercussions on art music's place in the outside world. Artistic specialization, along with its cousin in marketing, tightly focused demographic targeting, has reached such extremes that serious composers live in a sort of internal exile, playing virtually no part in their parent culture. When the most gifted converse only among themselves, their complaints about a debased public sphere become a self-fulfilling prophecy. At some point it ceases to matter whether they withdrew first, or were driven away by Philistines; the end result is identical.

     This all began as a plausible adaptation to a huge and complicated modern culture. When ancient difficulties of travel and communication allowed hundreds of little monocultures to survive in relative isolation, a person could investigate every lead in their limited environment and never be overwhelmed by information or contradictory instructions. As societies grow more complex, specialization erects barriers in the social environment that can help artists preserve command of their materials. But this gradual drift into a strategy of specialization has left the living inheritors of the once-dominant classical tradition in the evolutionary predicament of Australia's koala, which is so well suited to its eucalyptus trees that it's lost the ability to thrive on any other diet. If the forests disappear, so does the koala. If large enough patches manage to survive as carefully protected preserves, walled off from the invasive and evolving surroundings, so will the koala. The animal will not, however, go looking for adventure abroad, unless it's really determined to do something drastic about that weight problem.

     Although our poor koalas will never make it out of the woods and onto the savannas by breeding with kangaroos, that is exactly the sort of leap that the human brain is best at. The Darwinian gene can't mix apples and oranges, but in the virtual reality of ideas, languages, and art, the Lamarckian mind can transmit to the future any non-linear concoction that it's capable of dreaming up, provided that the dream includes some sort of a plan for meshing the working parts, and some inspiration and inventiveness to lubricate their motions. Long ago, such combinations of experimentation and hybrid inheritance animated the assembly of the classical tradition, from a collection of converging influences into an omnivorous system which rarely forgot to refresh its core with input from its surroundings. A new attempt to re-establish this sort of a relationship with the world began three decades ago when minimalism began its end run around modernism, avoiding prohibitions against undisguised references to popular or folk forms by referring to musics from beyond the West's boarded-over frame of reference. This has opened the door for subsequent generations to re-examine the musical worlds around them, looking outside of the genealogical chain of post-classical music, and to blend those lateral influences with their linear inheritance. In a very important sense, the use of elements from popular music is more in keeping with the classical tradition than their exclusion by mid-century, post-classical modernism. Now these vernacular influences and instruments are gradually ceasing to be a novelty among serious composers, and are well on their way to becoming a basic option in the vocabulary of a new generation.

     The Western tradition had become a kite flying at the end of a very long string, stretching backward across time, and one had to look back farther than most could remember to find the last places where it had habitually and "respectably" touched the ground of a living folk tradition. But now some lines of lateral communication with other areas of the culture have been re-established. Perhaps we'll see an end to the days when most people, educated or not, simply do without any music from their own time that's any longer or more involved than a song; giving very little thought to the historical and geographical oddity of automatically associating serious music with a European past. New solutions to this problem become more numerous every year: plenty of honest music, written from the inside out, as marked by our culture as its creators are. The new century promises an art music which no longer needs to self-consciously purge itself of references to its environment, and which claims the right to use our native dialects as it records our moment in history.

     Many thanks for the observations of those who read early portions or the penultimate draft of this paper: John Halle, Ed Harsh, Lyn Hejinian, Marlisa Monroe, Greg Sandow, and Randy Woolf.


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.