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A Strobe Light And A Staircase

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]

     Direct linear inheritance not only provides us with a story, but the story suggests a moral of sorts. Whether we are looking at creatures or culturally transmitted ideas and ways of making things, our selective attention is especially drawn when variations are actually elaborations; when a species, a type of human behavior, or a man-made object grows more complex, or just plain big. We are eager to fill our inner Guinness Book with amazing tales of intricacy or vastness, and on our expeditions we frequently consult a conceptual compass which predisposes us to associate "complex" with "higher". It saw constant use during our growth from infant to adult, and it gradually establishes connections with our sense of social hierarchy. Is this desire-driven linkage of complexity and advancement a learned tendency, a latent capacity waiting to be activated, or a hardwired imperative? May the best sociobiologist or cultural relativist win, but either way, it is a inclination which has a life-long influence on our cultural perceptions and attitudes, as well as our personal ambitions. Unsurprisingly, our heads are filled with vaguely or explicitly triumphal stories about the achievement of sophistication over time.

     Although we generally shift over to the image of a branching tree if we want to imagine the whole of evolution, a series of crawls and leaps along an ever-ascending line is our usual way of picturing the history and development of a single species, or a cultural tradition seen in isolation. This linear close-up is useful because it both focuses our attention on specifics, and it engages us emotionally with its air of story-telling. Often it's quite accurate as well: we all can conjure up the familiar image of a series of ancestral primate skeletons, captured in their spine-straightening march from the ape on the left, through a few early hominids, and finally to the modern human on the right. As Stephen Jay Gould points out,1 these simplified ladders of ascent are often paths drawn retroactively through the dense historical bushes of branching evolutionary experiments, following lineages which generally culminate in the current winner, or perhaps a particularly spectacular loser. This template for explaining things is not the sole property of biology. We might picture technological evolution in mental snapshots of ever taller buildings leading to a skyscraper, or perhaps in the soaring ratio of information capacity to physical size implied in a line drawn from clay tablets to paper to computers. Even in a specialty like music, clearly evolutionary readings of history as an accumulation of complexity have existed since long before Darwin began to put our intuitions about genealogy and change in order.

     If this sort of directional accumulation of design and complexity didn't actually happen in the real world, we wouldn't be here to make drawings or mental images of it; perhaps we'd be contentedly waving our flagella at passing algae. But although these pictures of linear progress may be true as far as they go, we still need to remember that they only go to the edge of the picture frame. They accurately describe certain bones and buildings and blank pages, but seldom include the environmental forces which made it advantageous or even possible to become what they have become. Left unexplained is the availability of fruit for the monkeys and steel for the skyscrapers, or the reasons why access to vertical real estate was worth the effort in either case.

     The model of ascending lineages leaves an implication that all things evolve from simple to complex, when in fact they only evolve from what worked last year to what works this year. If a complex solution fits the environment without creating extra problems, it survives, and the same goes for simple solutions. In this realm of environment and ecology, we might imagine a web of lateral interactions radiating out from each individual or type in our line-up of evolutionary mug shots. A biologist or a structural engineer is unlikely to forget that a sequence of forms presents only half of the story, but it may be useful for the rest of us to make some distinction between linear inheritance and lateral ecology; particularly those of us who grew up in the midst of modernism's fastidious history of concern with the genealogy of pure shape and technique.

     We all notice that which gives comfort to our desires, and post-classical 20th century music saw itself perched at the top of a logical progression, the outcome not of serendipitous and particular circumstances, but of an essentially directional European history in which voices multiply from plainsong to dense counterpoint, and acceptable pitch relationships make a slow crawl up the harmonic series from octaves and fifths towards increasingly dissonant intervals. It is no wonder that the second half of the century produced a modernist musical culture characterized by a growing indiscernibility to the ear of complex structures, and that it in turn bred a Cageian counter-culture; one which accepted much of the modernist premise, but employed intentionally non-intuitive, randomly derived structures as a means of inducing composers and listeners to confront their own expectations about music.

     But rather than being an expression of some sort of inevitable, "natural" progression towards complexity, High Modernism is perhaps better understood as a specific adaptation of music to its new home in the post-World War II university. This environment has its own imperatives, and they are indispensable to the activities which usually go on there. Good science and scholarship require ideas designed to be defensible when challenged by colleagues, and a consistent and teachable methodology which generates reproducible results. This works very well as a way of testing and conserving practical knowledge, but it may not be an optimal or sufficient list of characteristics for a thriving art form. If there was a "natural" force operating within the complexity of late 20th century atonal modernism, it had less to do with linear evolution and more to do with the limits of the brain's processing abilities in the face of a dense flood of incoming sound information, whose organizing principles were often more attuned to study than listening. But High Modernist styles have survived despite an overwhelming hostility from listeners, and despite their failure to produce the long hoped for and often propounded Sacre du Printemps reversal of fortune: the initial rejection and eventual embrace experienced by aggressive avant-gards earlier in the century. However, those earlier styles had retained the habit of making folk derivations, and thus maintained a conduit to and from the outside world. Late modernism did not, and today even its best work remains relatively impenetrable to the rest of the culture. But its once-secure home base in academia doesn't completely explain its long survival, because that security itself needs to be explained. Another reason suggests itself, a non-musical reason tied less to the evolution of form and more to the ecology of ideas.

     A powerful paradigm animated high modernism in its adventurous beginnings, an image which tapped directly into the 20th century's dreams of progress and the top-down redesign of human endeavors. From Webern on, the composer gradually took on the coloring of the research scientist: ahead of his time, and understood by few. In an elegant example of the human mind's ability to create conceptual hybrids from seemingly incompatible materials, this persona, elite yet understandable to popular culture, was lifted directly out of the history of science and merged with aspects of the very artistic paradigm which modernism had worked so hard to replace: the Romantic genius, the artist as conspicuous experiencer of emotions. Removing some of the emotionality and overripe stylistic conventions, but retaining the part about genius, the new century's avant-gards preserved their increasingly tenuous link to their culture by merging Einstein and his violin. In music's own odd version of the "physics envy" so familiar to practitioners of the softer sciences, the most rigorous music generated both dislike and a respect which was denied to work that was more immediately comprehensible but less theoretically defensible.

     This hybridized modern paradigm of the researcher as romantic genius makes a very snug fit with the vision of evolution as a ladder-like sequence of exemplary forms, because a string of such individuals of genius allows us to construct a morphing lineage similar to our familiar row of evolving skeletons. The merger of this modern artistic mythos and the image of mutating sequences creates a useful mental tool for making sense of a messy and sprawling human endeavor like music. But tools shape the hands that use them, and the appealing clarity of the insular modernist narrative has encouraged an atrophy of awareness regarding the environment, and an intellectual dismissal of the lateral cultural forces which push and prod musical lineages into the shapes which they temporarily assume. Our ideals of individual invention are easily offended when those forces intrude, and a quick listen to this month's imitation of last month's pop hit will explain why, but this esthetic gag reflex has become far too automatic among art music specialists. Much mud has been hurled over such matters, and fear of the accusation of seducing audiences has sometimes resulted in music intended to seduce the potential accusers with a stringent unseductiveness. But in practice no philosophical dike can completely prevent social forces from sneaking in around the edges, particularly with practitioners of such a social art as music.

     Virgil Thompson suggested that much can be learned about music by finding out who paid for it. In its pursuit of purity, free from the economic and audience pressures which constitute much of music's ecological context, modernist music found a philosophical fit to its central paradigm within the university. This isn't terribly surprising, since the university was itself a major source of that paradigm. But art music found no escape in principle from audience pressures, only a narrowing of territory. The outcome brings to mind a species in a stable environment, growing ever more perfectly adapted to a given task, responding to the same question with better and better answers. In contrast, a successful species in a volatile or uncertain environment is like a flexible set of tools, capable of solving a number of related problems. This is what the European tradition was for most of its history, and the irony of its descendants' radical effort to avoid the diluting hybridism of the marketplace is that the paradigm of the artist as research scientist is itself a conceptual hybrid, as is modernism's romance with mathematical imagery and ideas. As is the essay that you are reading, for that matter.


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.