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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Fools On The Hill Go Down In The Valley

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]

     As we have seen, there is no individual who provides a dividing line between successive species in the same lineage, but once two branches have incrementally divided far enough, they begin to embark on separate evolutionary paths. When this is noticeable enough we retroactively decide on where in the transition to draw the line between types. It's a bit easier with culture. Since a human invention can launch a new train of thought in a single leap, we occasionally have a clean place to draw a line and say "this was the first one". This remains a relatively infrequent occurrence, considering the number of artists' lives which have been filled with desire and labor towards this end. Nevertheless, even where gradualism persists, it is usually only a matter of time before genre boundaries appear. They appear because we induce them: distinctions have a practical value to us. We want to know when a new style begins, where its boundaries are, and who is in or outside of them. We draw demarcations because they are convenient and they help us to talk and focus our valuable time and attention; and once they are established they become self-fulfilling prophecies, because conventional delineations of style effect the distribution of rewards.

     A successful and definable style will attract audience attention, and the associated rewards will attract even more people towards doing even more of such work, thus fleshing out the center of the bell-curve for whatever characteristics define that style, and emptying out the fringes. These less populous regions become the space between genres. We could picture them as dry, rocky topographical high ground, and imagine mainstream, center-of-the-bell-curve genres as fertile valleys; rich in resources, population, and developed techniques for efficiently gathering the fruits of a rewarding environment. For an example of such a valley and an optimum valley dweller, think of the early 20th century orchestra, with the bugs worked out and some sonorities still underused, and Ravel there to orchestrate on it. Lucky orchestra, lucky Ravel.

     Now back to our rocky ridge. It doesn't seem to offer a lot of ways to make a living, but a few people give it a shot anyway. Perhaps they grew up there, the child of an experimenter as Charles Ives was; or maybe they are slightly odd and cranky and prefer their solitude. Or perhaps the population explosion in the valley is pushing people up the slopes, and they believe that they can settle this sparsely populated ridge of possibility and prosper by finding a resource missed by others: a winery, a mine, a line of traps in the right place. If it works, others will follow. This is the structural essence of the "reproductive strategy" of a successful avant-gard, whether or not it was consciously conceived of or pursued as such by those first few up the ridge.

     But remember that our high ground was only the space between genres, a lightly used group of possibilities outside of the valleys of successfully established practices. The very presence of more people changes its nature, and we can reflect that by giving our terrain the qualities of a seesaw. In our imaginary rubber landscape, the growing weight of our growing number of successful mountain people pushes the ridge downward, until it becomes a valley itself. Perhaps it draws so many converts from the former mainstream that it displaces the old valley upward, or perhaps the old valley survives, leaving us with two parallel troughs. Now our model10 reflects the fact that a physical organism or cultural construct can redesign its own environment, and we can not only see the difference between avant-gard and mainstream behaviors as survival strategies, but another phenomenon as well: the often noted way that one gradually transforms itself into the other, given conspicuous success.

     This image can also help us to see the pitfalls of searching for too coherent a lineage among the composers who have often been referred to as "American Mavericks". A school like the Serialists all settled on adjacent ridges, found a common way of mining, and were able to get enough people piled up in the same place to generate their own new valley in a fairly efficient way. What our now-honored mavericks have in common is only that they were "Ridge Guys" of one description or the other. Some miners, some vintners, some trappers, most living on different hills altogether; or like John Cage and Lou Harrison, plying different trades in close proximity. These two offer a cautionary argument against attempts to redefine the line of mavericks from Ives to contemporary experimentalists and minimalists as a "school" in quite the sense that serialism and East Coast rationalism in general were a school. In earlier years Cage and Harrison worked together as friends, participating in concerts and events in a milieu which in many ways set the tone for both West Coast experimentalism and New York's downtown environment. But like other important figures in this field, such as Cowell, Partch, or Nancarrow, their mature work offers very different experiences to the ear, across a wider and less unified range than the "uptown" Serialists. Although all parts of town see Ives as their ancestor, the later composers in the more miscellaneous lineage have provided much of the inspiration and impetus for downtown new music. This lively anti-tradition of mavericks has made and continues to make the world a far more interesting place, but it did not settle into a relatively stable or clearly defined genre until it gave rise to minimalism. Only with the appearance and success of a number of postminimal styles has a quorum of people congregated closely enough around a single shared inheritance to create a sizable new valley, and thus the potential for a new mainstream; to the extent that such a thing can still exist in a society with the diversity and complexity of our own.


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.