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.

Musical Prophecies

“The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”  – Jorge Luis Borges, in “Kafka and his Precursors”

The same is true of musical genres and techniques. For example, Schoenberg colors how we perceive not only the music that came after him, but what came before. We talk about Beethoven’s late string quartets, Liszt’s late orchestral works, Wagner’s late operas, and the Richard Strauss of Elektra as molotov cocktails thrown into the guts of standard tonality. (There’s something about the “late phase” here too that will have to be unpacked at another time.) All of these were precursors to the utter collapse of tonality that came with Schoenberg and the second Viennese school. They were prophetic of the chaos that was to come. However, without the ultimate collapse of tonality as embodied by Schoenberg, these earlier works would be read much differently today. In other words, prophecies are valued only when they come true.

The idea of being “validated by history” is a fascinating one. We’ve dealt a little with the evolutionary model of historiography (the “organic fallacy”) on this blog, but the concept of musical prophesy, while related, has a fundamentally different feature. Yes, we read late Beethoven as a precursor to the breakdown of tonality. However, the late quartets often resist being seen as simply an evolutionary step towards this eventual break. Instead, many historians have pointed to these works as a quasi-mystical revelation of the future. The conventional wisdom has mad, brilliant Beethoven, deaf as a rock, pounding out his existential fury in a way that is far too modern for his age. His genius allowed him to musically prognosticate. (In literature, the same is often said of Kafka, who wrote about paranoia, political fear, totalitarianism, and state brutality long before these historical monsters descended on his native Czechoslovakia.)

Let’s rewind over 400 years now. Machaut was well known is his day as a poet and a composer of secular songs. However, ask any Music History 101 student about Machaut’s major achievement, and he is bound to answer the Messe de Nostre Dame. By all measures, Machaut’s setting of the Ordinary of the Mass was an oddity in his composerly output. It can hardly be called the most representative piece of his creative life, yet it is remembered today over all the motets, virelai, and ballades that he wrote. Why?

The Mass is an amazing piece of music that would surely be remembered even if it were the only Mass Ordinary ever penned. However, we should also take into account that it was the first of its kind: Machaut was the first single author to attempt a full setting of the mass. Moreover, the genre of the Mass Ordinary became, over the next two centuries, the primary genre in Europe. From the perspective of the modern historian, this little fact makes Machaut’s oddity very interesting indeed. He didn’t realize it at the time, but his work would be seen historically as a musical prophesy.

I’ve lately made a habit of closing with Taruskin, and I’ll continue that pattern now: “What might otherwise seem a liturgical anomaly in an otherwise basically secular career has instead loomed disproportionately large both within Machaut’s output and in music historiography itself, because the ‘cyclic Mass Ordinary’ (that is, a setting of the mostly nonconsecutive items of the Ordinary liturgy as a musical unit) became the dominant musical genre of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and Machaut seems willy-nilly its prophetic harbinger.”   (I, 307)

Darwinian Music, Part II: Anachronisms

Persistence, [like Oswald’s]*, in old ways is often represented by historians as anachronism – in this case, as a pocket of “the Middle Ages” surviving like a fossil into “the Renaissance,” or as resolute “conservatism,” resistance to change. What is anachronistic, however, is the modern linear view of history that produces such an evaluation, and the implicit isolation of artistic practices or styles from the historical conditions that enabled them. (I, 143)


* [Oswald von Wolkenstein was a minnesinger who was born in 1376, years after the monophonic craft of the trouvéres faded away.]

This is a topic that I feel we’ll be returning to often. A historian who focuses solely on technical innovation and teleological progression could easily consider someone like Oswald to be atavistic and somewhat tragicomic. They just don’t seem to get it. Henry Ford is inventing the Model T and poor old Oswald is just coming out of the garage announcing that he’s discovered the wheel. Poor Oswald! (“Hello? Anyone in there? Think, Oswald, think!,” I hear Biff Tannen saying.) In the little comparative taxonomy set up in the previous post, if chant is the amphibian that wiggles onto shore, then Oswald is the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish that mind-bogglingly survived into the present (in very small numbers) with a primitive anatomy.

Oswald isn’t alone in this historical assessment. One of the major complications inherent in the concept of the “eras” (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, etc.) is that it codifies certain style characteristics as typical of a specific time, irrespective of the particular cultural milieu. If a composer is writing music that seems to outdo the style associated with his era, he’s considered progressive, vanguard, and innovative (and thus valuable and important). Music history is scattered with such innovating Geniuses who are ahead of their time: for instance, Gesualdo, Moussorgsky, and Ives. However, on the flip side, some composers in the standard canon wrote music that harkens back to earlier eras (a rococo classicist living in the Sturm und Drang era, for example). Since these unfortunate individuals aren’t current and up-to-date with their musical style, they are subjected to the historical judgment of conservatism. Thus, Sergei Rachmaninoff is an anachronism, writing grand, romantic symphonies and piano concertos well into the jaded, spiky 20th century. Mendelssohn is another who is sometimes labeled this way. And poor, misunderstood Oswald also falls into this category.

No good ethnomusicologist would make this judgment, steeped as the discipline is in the cultural embeddedness of all musical phenomenon. It may seem silly that we have to remind ourselves of this, but stylistic developments were not spontaneously adapted throughout Europe as soon as they came about. Nor should they have been. Indeed, innovative systems of music making were born from cultures, and were thus useful and meaningful in some way to the culture that produced them. Outside of that specific culture, however, the same technique could be irrelevant and unnecessary. Music is used, and if one culture has a use for a technique while the principality down the road (complete with a different language, system of social organization, economy, etc.) does not, then we can’t expect the second culture to adapt the new development wholesale simply because it’s technically innovative. This flawed historical perspective, Taruskin argues, is the anachronism, not the cultural practice so judged.

The fact of the matter is that feudalism, the social system that gave rise to the troubadour/trouvére/minnesang styles, persisted in the German lands long after it faded away in the French kingdoms. Oswald was not a holdover from an earlier era, therefore: he was responding to his culture, which just happened to keep up with feudal conditions after France began the shift towards urbanization. He was plenty relevant to his time (indeed, he was quite popular). As Taruskin puts it: “When things become truly anachronistic, they disappear (as did the Meistersinger guild when it officially disbanded in 1774). As long as they thrive, they are ipso facto – by the very fact – relevant to their time, and it is the historian’s job to understand how.” (I, 143)

History is not a straight line. Indeed, it’s the twists and turns and bifurcations that make history so interesting and so complex. We would all do well to remember that.

Darwinian Music, or “The Triad Ate The Dyad”

In undergraduate music history surveys, it’s easy to develop a simple assumption: music evolves. The evidence is all around us, like trilobite fossils in an ancient sandbank. Over the evolution of Western music, things started out simply and progressed in ever and ever greater complexity, culminating in (what?) Beethoven, Schoenberg, or Elliott Carter. The music we’re reading about now – where the proverbial rubber meets the road between orality and literacy – represents the fish wiggling onto shore. Chant is the musical equivalent of a rudimentary amphibian.

This sort of thinking can be compelling and attractive. While it is true that there are countless examples of music getting simpler with time, not more complex, the general thrust of Western music is pretty tough to ignore: back in the middle ages, they sung unaccompanied modal melodies, today we have all the bountiful gifts of total serialism. It’s easy for the student of music to view every musical innovation, therefore, as an evolutionary adaptation bringing us ever closer to the present.

This way of thinking, attractive as it may be, is of course false. (And it might even be harmful – more on this in a later post.) Actually, it’s both a false reading of history and a demonstrably inaccurate take on the concept of evolution. In classical Darwinian evolution, species don’t simply evolve in straight lines towards their ultimate expression, ie. what they are today. Evolution is sprawling and messy; it doubles back on itself when survival dictates; it results in all sorts of dead-ends and false starts. Just like music. So perhaps music history and evolution do share something in common, only not the simple, commonly understood definitions of either.

But back to the text. Chant, it turns out, is not the squirmy amphibian on the evolutionary chart of music. Earlier dominant styles, actually, were far more complex, at least according to all evidence (we can’t hear it, obviously). The Psalms, in their description of Judaic practice, describe massed ensembles of drums, tambourines, singers, and – yes – even orchestras. Pagan musical practices were most probably polyphonic as well. Musically speaking, these practices were more complex than chant. In fact, chant can be seen as a deliberate step towards simplifying the raucous music that preceded it. It was, in a sense, reactionary. As monasteries were formed and the ascetic religious life took shape, a corresponding music for contemplation and spiritual equanimity was needed. Musical complexity and formal development weren’t even a consideration. So where, then, does this leave the Darwinian musicologist?

This is a topic I hope to return to as the project progresses (dare I say “evolves”). For now, I leave you with Taruskin:

Monophony was thus a choice, not a necessity. It reflects not the primitive origins of music (as the chant’s status as the oldest surviving repertory might all too easily suggest) but the actual rejection of earlier practices, both Judaic and pagan, that were far more elaborate and presumably polyphonic. (I, 10)