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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


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]

     Naming and defining the generations born since World War II has become a popular pastime in recent years, but one shared feature on their cultural landscapes remains constant for all. Every group has come of age in a society which acknowledges the Western art music tradition with an increasingly faint and uncertain voice, and which has little use for the composers who are the living offshoots of that tradition. While our indigenous popular musics thrive, the vast majority of educated Americans cannot name a living composer, and most of those who can are likely to know only one or two individuals who emblematically stand for a concept of serious music, in the way that one famous singer can stand for all opera. Composers and their millions of non-listeners alike seem to agree that there is little in common between an elaborately notated piece of music in the European tradition, and a popular piece in which the decisions of band-members, arrangers, or producers flesh out the details left open by the song-writer's art. This enormous gulf in practice is reinforced by the disparity between the instruments and musical materials used by classical and vernacular styles. The existence of such sharp contrasts has become self-perpetuating; providing endless fuel for the critical distinctions with which art music professionals fence off their territory. Our culture teaches us a gut certainty about which sounds belong with which technique, and there are no widespread contemporary equivalents of Schubert parlor songs or Bach church music to integrate popular sources into composed music, or composers into daily life.

     But during the 1990s, the corrosive side effects of the isolation and near-sacralization of art music became apparent even to those who had not seen the trouble coming. For others, who had maintained a long-standing skepticism about contemporary culture's airtight distinctions between serious and popular music, the new realignments and reversals of opinion have been both gratifying and full of surprises. It's no longer unusual to hear academic thinkers or the directors of major classical music institutions soberly acknowledging that the transplanted European tradition of serious music has run into serious problems adapting to the American climate. This same realization fueled many a late-night rant among my friends two decades ago, and such reactions retain their shape today as young musicians continue their weekend pilgrimages between obscure concerts of the post-classical avant-garde, and the marginally less obscure clubs of the popular avant-garde, where sonic extravaganzas involving the creative abuse of electronics, electric guitars, or saxophones are an anti-institution of long standing. Agreement between power brokers and art punks is not the usual state of affairs, and the emergence of similar conclusions in such disparate constituencies suggests that a very real crisis is being seen from multiple vantage points. How to best describe it? Is this a mere shift in fashion, or are there slower motions and larger principles involved?

     At the heart of this fin de siecle crisis lies the very set of ideas which provided a solution to the last one. In their search for a way around a moribund romanticism, musical modernists drew upon many of the same ideas and events which animated other early 20th century progressives. The explanatory power of Darwinism and the unprecedented achievements of science and technology combined to create an atmosphere charged with an animating belief in an inevitable march of progress. With both Marxism and Freudianism contributing variations on an underlying theme of the malleability of human nature, the big question was "Why not?", and the possibility of leaping forward though expert redesigning of human experience must have been deeply compelling. But here at the end of that century, music is not the only field where exaggerated versions of utopian desires have created unforeseen and unwanted side effects. The visionary modernist impulse is now paying the price for its single-minded, reductionist misunderstanding of the nature of cultural evolution.

     But regardless of the damage done to the health of post-classical music by an oversimplified belief in linear progress, the basic perception that there are similarities between cultural change and biological evolution is no mistake. The same basic mechanisms and accidents of evolution which have granted us our survival and the ability to communicate with each other are also at work within seemingly unnecessary "luxuries" like music. They aren't at work because they were designed with music in mind. They are just unavoidably present in all that we do, because that is how people are put together. Once we've learned to be suspicious of the old triumphal stories of progress, contemporary evolutionary thought offers a set of ideas which work equally well on matters great and small, physical and intellectual. The very distance of this non-musical vantage point shifts our perspective away from the customary ways of talking about music, suggesting alternative routes around familiar ideological entrenchments. But perhaps it's best to first connect these realms at the lowest level available.

     It is nearly impossible to listen to or study music for any length of time without noticing both the chains of imitation which link pieces and styles of music together, and the leaps of invention which set them apart. In making these simple observations, we have already identified two of the three classic preconditions for evolution: inheritance and variation. Now off we go to a concert; choose any kind of music, in which we can hear any particular interplay of inheritance and invention. Each decision that you or I make between applauding, not applauding, or leaving the room transforms us briefly into minor ecological forces, making a judgment about relative fitness. At this point all of the Darwinian requirements have been fully met: 1) inheritance, in the style of music; 2) variation, from the personal expression of the musicians or composers; and 3) differential success among the variants, from the assessment that we voted with our palms. Regardless of whether we have ever put much thought into examining our intuitions about evolution, any evening's concert or any trip to the record store both fit snugly within its definition. And note that the match is not a matter of metaphor: here at this most basic behavioral level, it is a functioning, measurable process; as real as any chemical reaction.

     So it is little wonder that people habitually sprinkle their conversations about music with references to genealogies of influence and the evolution of genres. Our instincts are correct, and it's not just a matter of poetic analogy. Culture, and all of its constituent branches, is a concrete expression of our nature. Although cultural details are far more free of narrow genetic control than individual physical traits are, our capacity for inventing and teaching behaviors and traditions is still as much a product of our species' evolution as the opposable thumbs on our hands, the upright posture which frees us to use them, or the brains that decide what to use them for. I should say at the outset that I think that "fitness" is a slippery concept in music, not particularly meaningful in the absence of a particular use or cultural niche. An obscure composer is as "fit" within a hushed roomful of devotees as a popular icon is in the roar of a stadium concert; but that roomful should be cautious about claiming to represent their civilization, rather than merely themselves. Fitness is a practical matter, and need will generate whatever ideological arguments prove necessary for survival. And so I'll try and leave fitness to sort itself out, because for the pleasures of contemplation and imagination, questions of inheritance and variation are far more interesting and fruitful. They throw light inward to the workings of musical minds, and outward towards the differences between human beings and the rest of the natural world.

     A failure to fully recognize one of these differences has played a part in the misconceptions which have led serious music to its current insignificance in the culture at large. Artistic traditions seem to evolve like natural species in some respects, transmitting new adaptations along with a basic body of information; but nature enforces an uncompromising linear purism upon its creatures, because they cannot mix things up by interbreeding with distantly related species. But in the world of ideas, hybridism and cultural cross-pollination play a huge role. Nowhere was this more true than in the omnivorous European classical tradition, cobbled together as it is from the contributions of numerous distinct nations and languages. Hybridism has received a very bad press during the second half of the 20th century, but the patchwork logic of human culture is echoed by the very physical structure of our brains, in which jury-rigged modules are added to each other simply because they work, not because they are elegant or logical. Functions are often redundant, and sometimes work at cross purposes, but if this haphazard complexity lacks the crystalline beauty of good design, it still provides for surprise and unforeseen interactions.

     But serious music's gradual retreat from its position of importance within 19th century culture has been marked by bouts of purist fervor from classicists and avant gardists alike. Both reflect a very real need to reduce an increasingly complex world to the more manageable proportions of a story, whether one of a golden age lost, or of progress towards some "higher" state. In the case of historical preservationists, a concern with lineage and purity makes practical sense, but as High Modernism embraced the idea of art music as specialized pure research, exporting new "conclusions" and importing nothing from the surrounding musical environment, it gradually dried up the wells which had periodically refreshed the European tradition. The inertia of this attitude is considerable, and even now the sometimes gleefully messy melting pot of the avant gard community is not immune to occasional fussy fits of house-cleaning, as the heirs of a previous generation's rebellions attempt to fortify the ground gained by their heroes.

     Evolution always involves a relationship with the environment, not just with one's own ancestors and descendants. High Modernism may have gotten itself into trouble by thinking that progress and specialization are synonymous, but both modernism and classicism have shared another misreading of Darwinian principles; one which has also been used to provide a background justification for the separation of post-classical music from its surrounding culture. Fragments and descendants of once-popular forms which were long ago incorporated into the classical music tradition are now accepted as if their transmutation had erased their popular history. But they were not originally created to serve their "fine art" function, and newer influences still undergoing the same process are greeted with distaste, condescension, or embarrassment.

     The most polite thing one could say about this way of thinking is that it is a Platonic or essentialist fallacy, which ascribes intrinsic qualities where there are only temporary and contingent ones. The fallacy rests on the notion that any genre of music currently occupying a certain cultural niche is somehow inherently well suited to it in part and whole, although its ancestors may have drifted in from elsewhere with plenty of unrelated baggage, and its descendants may head off in yet another direction. But a less polite and more direct observation is that such respect for safely pre-legitimized popular influences bears a distinct resemblance to a chimpanzee's increased grooming of a newly ascendant leader, who only a few days ago may have had to just deal with his fleas on his own. This status-oriented blindness to the power of context and social suggestion has been greatly exacerbated by the modern tendency to defend the purity of genres and to demean hybrids. Much of the damage to the classical tradition has resulted from a habit of investing the differences between serious and popular music with all of the gravity and exaggeration of the medieval distinction between sacred and profane. Talk of high and low culture has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and in obeying it the classical tradition has turned its back on the very capacity for importation and hybridization which fueled its rise. All that art music seems to have gained in return for its insistence on these terms is a moderate amount of verbal convenience when discussing itself.

     The concept of replication with variation receives an advertisement every time we note the resemblances between parent and child; and as for survival of the fittest, the next two guys that refer to it are welcome to step outside and give each other a fat lip. These concepts themselves are endlessly varied and replicated, and they refuse to be restricted to the job of explaining the genetic world. Since evolution-based explanations of musical events are a reflexive and often unconscious habit, this essay will compare such interpretations of culture to the biological forces which provide us with our mental templates of evolutionary change. We will need to make a few stops in the natural world to assemble some basic concepts, but then it will be back to the world of music, to try to find which parts of our intuitive understanding of evolution work, and which don't, and which provide tools so useful that their inaccuracies are forgiven (at least until we bang our thumb). I'll begin with the simplest of evolutionary ideas, which is paradoxically tied to the most complex of living musical styles.


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.