Darwinian Music, Part III: Backtracking

Evolution has proved an alluring lens through which to see music history for obvious, sloppy reasons. On the surface, we can map the graph of organic development (amoebas to humans) directly onto music, with chant being the amoeba and (what?) Pierre Boulez being the human. (Or chant being the human and Boulez being the cyborg.) Needless to say, the fact that western music has, generally speaking, taken on more and more complex forms over the centuries has made the comparison all too easy to resist.

Moreover, beginning in the late 19th century, Darwinian thought came to influence many aspects of western thinking that were completely removed from Darwin’s actual writings, from social theory (who can forget the alpha version of compassionate conservatism, social Darwinism?) to history. The title of these posts might seem flippant, but historians truly were transposing Darwinism onto historical processes, with the result of validating the present and the European. Beyond the scale of western music history (the chant to Boulez chronology above), Darwinian musicologists looked to Darwin to help explain the vast diversity of human music-making, and with predictable results: “primitive” cultures were in an early stage of evolution, and western culture was in an advanced stage. Europeans sounded just like Africans way back in pre-history, but as we evolved our music grew more and more complex. Just give the primitives another couple thousand years and they’ll catch on, the Darwinian musicologists argued. The evolutionary scale of development was also likened by historians to the journey from childhood to adulthood: the music of primitive peoples was really just music for children, and a symphony was the apotheosis of mature, adult music. “Don’t worry, primitive people of the world, you’ll grow up.”*

Evolution is always the story of increasing complexity, right? We’ve discussed the forward flow of evolutionary musical development here, and the idea of the anachronistic hold-over (the musical fossil) here. In this “Darwinian Music” post, I’d like to turn to another phenomenon of the organic fallacy – backtracking. It turns out that “forward” is not the only direction forward.

Biological evolution works this way too, of course. There is no goal of evolutionary processes, and the more complex doesn’t always mean the more fit to survive. Dynamic change seems to be rule (though don’t tell the humble crocodile), but increasing complexity does not. In fact, if it provides an advantage, species can even evolve to be less complex. For example, many scientists believe this to be the genetic history of the virus – it started out as something more complex then gradually shed the complexity in favor of the lean, mean infecting machine that we know today.

Anthropologists will tell you that a similar process exists in human history: if a certain technology ceases to be useful, then it will cease to be used. (Any owner of a pager knows that much.) For instance, the ancestors of the Tasmanian aborigines had bows and arrows and other sophisticated hunting implements, but when they relocated to the island, they didn’t need all this stuff to get their food. These hunting technologies were lost from their cultural memory, and when Europeans arrived for the first time, they thought they had encountered a group of Stone Age hunter/gatherers surviving miraculously into the present. Little did they know (little did the aborigines know) that this culture once used all sorts of tools. They just didn’t need them anymore. It was taken as an object lesson in Darwinian history (“primitive” people with no sophisticated technologies = lower level of development), but really it was the exact opposite – complexity has little to do with survival, and the Tasmanians were surviving just fine, thank you.**

How do virus evolution and human technological de-acquisition relate to the organic fallacy of musical development? If complexity is all we’re looking for in music, then we would have hit upon the ars subtilior in the 14th century and stayed there. Of course, this was not the case; complex musical technologies are developed then lost all the time. If musical evolution is a straight line upwards (it’s not), then we backtrack regularly, just like the virus and the Tasmanians. Such backtracking has been viewed as mere hiccups in the inevitable march of history, but really it calls the whole philosophy of organicism into question.

For a musical style to survive, it must have a relevant social function and meaning to the people who create it. This is, after all, why music changes – we change. The process of dynamic change can sometimes match up with complexity, but it doesn’t have to. As we have seen, the ars subtilior – perhaps one of the most complex forms of western composition ever – came about to fill the elite need for mental puzzles and riddling. Furthermore, it was a triumphant statement of pride in newly developed notational technologies. However, it didn’t last forever in active practice – it served a function, but simpler styles were favored by a majority of musicians.

In the steady march forward, music history is filled with such potholes. Tonal harmony was in many ways a simpler system than the modal logic it supplanted (12 expressive modalities versus 2); polyphony was more complex than the monody that unseated it; in the rubble of western music teleology, minimalism is the ultimate virus of the evolutionary family. The same force of backtracking holds perpetually true in pop music as well. (Those who know me will know that I view “Crank That” by Soulja Boy as the absolute nadir of western music.)

I bring this topic up now because we’ve just hit the Council of Trent and its concomitant reforms. Like many politically-inspired reforms both before and after, church officials were seeking greater “intelligibility” in music and trying to curb perceived technical excesses. Some might argue that the resulting music represents another backtrack, where simplicity (clearer text declamation, fewer wild harmonies, etc.) wins out over complexity (thus winning out over forward evolution). There was nothing evolutionary about these reforms, however; complexity has really never been the only thing at stake in the history of the arts. Like the Tasmanians losing their bows and arrows, church officials concluded that what was needed was a more simple, direct music – all that complexity was useless. Moreover, it was actually a liability in the intensifying ideological battle with the Protestants over the soul of Europe. In the case of the virus and the Tasmanians, survival dictated backtracking; in this instance, it wasn’t so different – it was a matter of survival for the Roman Catholic church. And survival is really the name of the game – for species and for musical styles – not complexity.

* For a thorough and totally unique history of the organic fallacy in music historiography, see Warren Dwight Allen, Philosophies of Music History: A Study of General Histories of Music 1600-1960 (New York: Dover, 1962).

** An account of the Tasmanian migration can be found in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel.

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