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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Urge To Procreate

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]

     Regardless of the eventual fate of any particular style, all which have participated to any great extent in the avant-gardism of 20th century post-classical music have had more than a few bites out of the apple of historical self-awareness. The world of the modern avant-gard is one which is quite knowledgeable about the details of its own history of innovation, and is as eager to reproduce the conditions which led to its successes as any other group of people would be. Thus it should be no surprise that the values embodied in the maverick composers above should command a great deal of allegiance, nor that the founding research-oriented modernists should have the same effect. Here uptown and downtown agree: both of their central narratives tell of individuals who were willing to risk the scorn of others to stick to a difficult vision, who eventually succeeded in spreading their influence by wide dispersal or along a lineage, but who would have kept at their work regardless of wide attention or success. In a century whose primary features were specialization aimed at tightly targeted audiences, divergence of cultural functions, and the subdivision of a rich and successful musical inheritance, it is no wonder that the confluent processes of synthesis, hybridization, and populism should get something of a bad name. The bad name was only made worse as popular music came to be defined by corporate grazing among the sincere efforts of new bands, and film gradually learned to design broadly targeted products by committee, treating the artists executing them as being increasingly interchangeable.

     I am not at all sure how our emphasis on individualism and specialization in the fine arts would have felt to composers of earlier times, or whether their more stable common practice generated different attitudes about innovation and invention; but these are our values, and the benefits to be derived from fulfilling them are now intuitively obvious to any aspiring student of contemporary music. As was true in the past, inheritances from older composers remain the most conflict-free and readily acknowledged of borrowings, because both generations benefit. But modern composers have strong social pressures upon them to be very cautious about lateral influences from their immediate peers. They do not want to be seen as engaging in imitative behavior which might disqualify them as potential progenitors; either in a line of their own, or more often as major contributors in the dispersed reproductive style of artistic schools. Shared characteristics can exacerbate rivalries, but a way around this problem can be found by creating coalitions, ranging from loose camaraderie to close associations of the Picasso/Braque sort. As usual, a common enemy helps things along.

     On a more impersonal scale, the lateral spread of a new taste can also be problematic, because if its dissemination doesn't call to mind popular culture's fashions and fads on its own, you can be sure that its critics soon will. The price that we pay for the subversive pleasures of our admiration of mavericks is that it promotes an outlook in which any comparison to passing fashion seems to detract from the seriousness of an artistic endeavor. But these winds of common concern which sweep back and forth across the musical infosphere are audible in the best of work as well as the worst, and are not necessarily in conflict with originality, since shared ideas have often provided the raw material for an original treatment. Nevertheless, eclecticism beyond a circle of friends sometimes raises eyebrows, and referring to such lateral influences when talking to a composer about his or her work is potentially impolite, or worse. Making faddishly derivative work constitutes conduct unbecoming a prospective progenitor, and offense can easily be taken if such any such implication is perceived.

     This sketch of the relative respectability and social comfort level of influences begins to paint a familiar picture, one with a strong preference for direct generational inheritance or a sort of tribal proximity. Tracing its outlines reveals the silhouette of biology's branching, linear tree of inheritance being superimposed on human invention, and there are places where this linear model pinches and fits poorly. These are the same places where composers' emotional discomfort over acknowledging influences from beyond a chosen circle appear: at the sites where vines of lateral cultural influence arrive from distant branches, or sprout off and reach towards them, or twine together in mid-air in hopes of making a branch where there was none before. The discomfort arises when the regulatory influence of group identity conflicts with an individual's outward-looking curiosity, and these conflicts are areas of endless social re-negotiation. Up to a certain point, the interests of a group are furthered by a narrowed focus on inherited, indentifiable badges of membership; and individuals who participate are rewarded. But individuals do not want to be deprived of their conduits for acquiring lateral information, and often feel resistant to any group-friendly linear model of inheritance which fails to make full use of our capacity for intellectual hybridism.

     Nevertheless, we hold on to the not-quite-sufficient tool of a linear inheritance wherever possible, for the same reason that we use prescriptive/descriptive genre boundaries which don't quite fit the facts on the ground: because they are both so useful. The points where biological branchings are closest to the truth, such as the relationship between teacher and student, are points of immediate contact between real people who know each other; where the transfer of detailed information itself is easier than across subcultures, and where there are opportunities to personally smooth over any rough spots and rivalries. But the linear model itself is still useful even when it doesn't fit. It filters data down to the point where it can be more easily grasped, isolating individual leaps of human inventiveness from the background of environmental forces operating both within and around that individual.

     There is a distinctly game-like quality to all of this, with winners to be picked and rewards to be distributed. Focusing on the meandering tracks of lateral influence or ideas "in the air" interrupts the business of making competitive interpretations, identifying progenitors, and rating their subsequent lineages for their relative "fitness". When cultural evolution is recast as this sort of boiled down Darwinian drama of inheritance, variation, and selection, then lateral influences and hybridism constitute a muddying of the contestant's trail, a form of cheating in what was supposed to be a clean fight. Keeping the fight within the rules and the ring is the job of the purist. But even if you buy the idea that selection is always more interesting than variation, one problem remains: too much success at keeping the fight in the ring tends to shrink the ring itself, until there is no room left for anything but the musical equivalent of Bruce Lee's one inch punch.

     Despite the reality of selection and competition, there is a damaging fallacy at work in all of this. Cultural selection does not operate solely on individuals; it also operates on group interests. Concerts of one composer's work remain the exception, and genre members depend on eachother in many ways. Music is not in its entirety a zero sum enterprise, in which the ascendance of one practitioner damages the rest. On the contrary, a successful composer will send listeners hunting for another similar experience, thus benefiting the field or genre as a whole. This may not be immediately apparent at our moment in history because, as an unintended side-effect of the modernist adventure, the culture's interest in contemporary music is so slender that it will support only a handful of recognizable names at any given moment. This creates a winner-take-all situation where they must "stand for" contemporary composition in the same way that Pavarotti now stands for opera, and of course there is considerably less "all" for the winner to take at our end of the musical field. Nevertheless, if we composers indulge the misplaced exaggerations of natural rivalry which this system evokes in us, we simply become engines of its perpetuation. Serious music is a minority interest, and like most minorities, it fares best with a realization of shared interests.

     Ideas are more often laterally dispersed than bequeathed in a line, and few cultural endeavors will ever have anything like the clarity and hard edges of natural lineages. Schoenberg got as close as possible, establishing a particularly definable branch because of his invention of a specific and unmistakable technique, but Stravinsky behaved more like most great composers have, sending vine-like tendrils of influence off into many corners of musical space, and entering into transactions with whatever sources fed into his personal vision. Stravinsky's influence still appears in unexpected quarters with unexpected results, because his genius for organizing a broad range of materials allowed him to carry his house on his back as he traveled through diverse territories. When in the end these territories included Schoenberg's own, it was more the logical extension of an omnivorous nature than the acceptance of an inherited, enclosed, and circumscribed role for art music.


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.