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.

Why Petty Politics Can be a Good Thing

What drives musical innovation and complexity? We’ve discussed a couple factors so far, including artistic play, technological advances influencing practice, and competition. I’d like to return briefly to the last of these (competition), although I’ll leave rap battle analogies out of this one.

The motet was the most sophisticated, dense, and – as Taruskin points out – occult genre of its day. It was also the most prestigious in the halls of power. (In today’s terms, the motet might be the equivalent of combining the intellectual rigor of total serialism with the patriotic fervor of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”) Suffice it to say, the motet did a lot of cultural work. It is important to remember, however, that the great feats of complexity that played such a prominent role in the genre’s success were not purely the result of aesthetic considerations. One of the things I admire the most about the OHWM is that Taruskin adamantly refuses to approach pieces of music as disembodied, pure aesthetic objects. It would be easy and alluring to see the motet as just another evolutionary step forward, as a product of composers’ innate drive for greater expressive power. Taruskin doesn’t let us off this easily.

The fact of the matter is that politics played a major role in the complexity arms race of the motet, especially in Italy. During the 13th and 14th centuries, small principalities broke up the boot into a balkanized patchwork of power centers. Even the church got in on the factionalization when the great papal schism lasting 40 years led to a multiplicity of popes all vying for legitimacy. And what does music have to do with all of this? Taruskin: “This period of political and ecclesiastical chaos was a gold mine for the arts, and especially for music. That is because one of the chief means of asserting political power has always been lavish patronage of the arts.” (I, 277)

Despots used music as a competitive tool to project their own superiority over their rivals. Despite the somewhat ignominious nature of this arrangement, their deep pockets made for some of the best-paid, most respected gigs of the day. (That is, until your patron’s fiefdom gets sacked by the next town over.) Composers from France and Flanders – the birthplace of ars nova – flocked south to write music for these powerful patrons, including the great Johannes Ciconia. Ciconia worked for one Francesco Zabarella, an archpriest in line for the papacy, setting to work to glorify the achievements of his boss. Here are some sample lyrics from his hagiographic motets: “O Francesco Zabarella, glory, teacher..,” “O Francesco Zabarella, protector….”

Music of this sort is about as far as you can get from “music for music’s sake.” Yet the competition between rival Italian courts and religious authorities led to cross-pollination of regional styles, a secure paycheck for the composers involved, and the explicit instruction for them to go out and innovate. Thus, while the pretenses for this music were hardly what we today would call “purely aesthetic,” political competition profoundly enriched the musical culture of the day.

It’s a bit like the space race. While it’s certainly true that the US and the Soviet Union were essentially engaged in a multi-billion dollar pissing contest, it’s hard not to recognize the positive (and unintended) outcome of the race. Our species endeavored into outer space, we developed amazing new technologies, we educated an entire generation in the hard sciences. The photo of the earth from the moon is pretty nifty, if existentially exhausting. At a certain point, the petty political posturing at the root of space race funding sort of fades into black. What we’re left with is that photo of our perfect planet earth.

Accidental Music

[Vol. I, pp. 1- 50]

The fact that eighth-century Roman liturgical song – cantus in Latin, from which we get the word “chant” – was singled out for preservation in written form had nothing to do with musical primacy, or even with musical quality. The privilege came about, as already implied, for reasons having nothing to do with music at all. (I, 2)

This passage made me smile. It’s only natural to conclude that the most enduring music out there, the stuff that enriches our lives and breathes energy into our spirits, is also the best. For instance, take three bodies of essential music at random: say Bach, Miles Davis, and The Beatles. Their body of work, virtually uncontested in its brilliance, still works magic on people – and presumably will continue to do so – because of its sheer quality. All three acts, processed through the canonizing influence of “Big Men” historiography, reveal themselves to be game-changing, iconoclastic, and touched with a Romantic notion of Genius. We listen to Bach, therefore, because Bach is good. Or is it really that simple?

I’m not insane enough to impugn the quality of this music. But there’s something more at work in why these three bodies of music are recorded, remembered, and cherished today. Let’s take  a closer look. Bach was a  humble church composer and organist who toiled hard making beautiful music. Unlike, say, the Mozartian concept of inspiration being handed down from on high, Bach believed that creating music was more the result of hard work, solid craftsmanship, and perseverance. He certainly wasn’t positioning his own work to be worshipped as Genius for hundreds of years after his death in 1750, and indeed Bach’s name was largely forgotten for decades afterward. It wasn’t until Felix Mendelssohn came along in the late 1820s, rearranged St. Matthew’s Passion, and championed his cause that a revival of interest in Bach occurred. Looking in retrospect, Romantic composers embraced the industrious contrapuntalist from Leipzig as their forefather. But without Mendelssohn, where would Bach be today? It’s a metaphysically impossible question, but it makes you wonder.

Same with Miles Davis and The Beatles. Davis was pulled into the mainstream of the NY jazz scene by powerful friends like Charlie Parker. Had he not moved from East St. Louis, where he grew up, to the bustling, brand new bebop scene in NY in the late 1940s, his destiny as one of The Greats becomes murky. The Beatles were given not one but two unfathomably good breaks at the beginning of their career. The first was an opportunity to play, virtually without limits, in Hamburg. This opportunity allowed the young men to craft an incredibly tight product. The next big break came after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, a storied event that catapulted the Fab Four into the American market. No Hamburg residency, no Ed Sullivan – no Beatles.

Bach, Miles Davis, and The Beatles all produced some amazing music. But they also got by with a little help from their friends. This notion that circumstance, sheer luck, politics, and random factors influence success and failure perhaps more than anything else is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers. It’s a fascinating premise and one that historians should keep in mind as they proceed down the narrow path of any “Master Narrative” of history.

But back to the earliest written music. Chant was not selected to be preserved because it was better than the other music of the day; it was not notated (or, rather, notation was not invented for it) because it was just that good. No, musical notation came about when Charlemagne consolidated power under the aegis of the Holy Roman Empire and all of a sudden a vast, linguistically divided land all came under the same political stewardship. Charlemagne, seeking unification of this diverse empire, initiated a standardization of the liturgical cycle of chant. The earliest form of notation was invented so that far-flung regions with their own, heterodox liturgical traditions could learn the Roman way of singing. The invention of written notation, therefore, was a political act.