Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tradition and Progressivism

A long time ago on the blog, way back in July 2011, I put up a post titled Progressivism vs... that presented a theory of music historiography that I thought was interesting. I am inspired to revisit the idea because of a very intriguing comment left by Anonymous-R a few days ago. Go read the previous post first. Here is an excerpt:
So, "racinative" as in, music that refers back to some past music or re-discovers some rooted aspect of music. Historians have ignored this fairly successfully, but I suspect it is an important aspect of music history. Composers are often fascinated with music history, even when they aren't looking to steal an idea. I know a young composer who worked hard to learn how to do a convincing pastiche of the style of Palestrina. Now there's something no-one is clamoring for! But it was important to him because it got him in touch with something important, deeply-rooted. This may also have something to do with Harold Bloom's theory of influence in literature. As Wikipedia says, "Writers find their creative inspiration in previous writers and begin by imitating those writers; in order to develop a poetic voice of their own, however, they must make their own work different from that of their precursors. As a result, Bloom argues, authors of real power must inevitably "misread" their precursors' works in order to make room for fresh imaginings." I don't know about misreading, but I think that composers often look back at those who came before in order to tap into some deep river of the essence of music and to escape the influence of the superficial fashions of the day.
My commentator had quite a different perspective on what I sense is a similar aspect of music history:
As a general comment, I may be a little more conservative than you, in that I attach a great deal of importance (maybe too much) to tradition as the best intellectual frame to help us understand art. As I see it, classical music is made of 3 concentric circles: the first one is Italy/France/Germany (the latter includes the Netherlands and Austria). Western music was born in that tradition (chronologically in that order, Germany being the latecomer). Germany became the dominant force in that triumvirate by the 18th c. largely eclipsing the others until the French revival in the late 19th c. I believe that inner ring (really a tripod) is the key to every subsequent development.
The second circle is Russia/Central Europe/Scandinavia. It never quite left the orbit of the first circle. As Stravinsky rightly said, "there is no Russian music tradition per se." In fact, what makes him the best Russian composer was his genius in blending the inner-circle tripod (especially French) with his own Russian sauce. That he was a genius tout court also helped... The 3rd circle is Spain and, more important, the English speaking world. 
My conservative side believes that great genius can only emerge from a deep, rich tradition. England never produced a musical Shakespeare because of its weak musical tradition. Bach is the greatest of them all because not only is his music entirely anchored in the innermost circle, but no one was more successful in seamlessly blending French, Italian, and German music together: Bach dances better than the French, he sings better than the Italians, and he does harmony on the organ better than the Dutch. He's the motherlode of all Western music at its best. Likewise, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven tapped into, and refined, modified, codified, innovated within the motherlode. It's not all about their big brains (big as they were) but also about their location in time and space (think of Vienna for music and Florence for painting! Location, location, location..)
It would be much better if one could argue that other motherlodes were found or created, but that didn't happen. The second circle (especially Russian) developed its genius by drawing connections between Slavic folk tradition and the innermost circle. But it didn't leave that orbit (something that pissed off Stravinsky endlessly). The reason it is stronger than the English-speaking circle is that it had much richer local fare to tap into and better music schooling. Leaving Jazz aside, the Anglo-American tradition had only weak local material to thrive upon, so it became mostly derivative without ever developing its own voice. Reich and Ives are great composers who happen to be American. But Verdi is not a composer who happens to be Italian: he is an Italian composer. Because there is such thing as Italian music but there is no such thing as American music (in the sense I explained earlier). 
I don't believe the Italian/French/Germans are naturally more talented. These are all accidents of history. Some people argue that the French are more literary and the Germans more musical, hence... Except that the causal arrow might run the other way. I am skeptical about any essentialist reading of history. Probably geography played a big role too.
This idea of deep, rich cultural traditions as providing the soil in which creativity is rooted is a fascinating one. I think that this aspect of music history has been seriously neglected for a long time for two fundamental reasons:

  1. Music history is largely written from an event perspective. That is, historians look for "firsts" and "originality." Who wrote the first opera? How did Beethoven expand the Classical symphony? What were Wagner's harmonic innovations? The emphasis falls on the progressive element.
  2. The second reason comes from the changing role of the composer. For the last hundred years and more, composers have had to fight to find an audience. In so doing they become, in a way, their own marketing directors. Stravinsky was at pains to underline his own originality and to downplay the influence and importance of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov.
But music-lovers and musicians are usually well-aware that music has deep, rich traditions and that older music is a wide and fundamental context for newer music. In a sense, all new music is a blend of the influence of older music, combined with the individual fantasy of the composer. Each are important, but one, the tradition, is ignored and depreciated. We see this very strongly in articles like the one in NewMusicBox that I linked to in yesterday's Miscellanea. The author, Hannah Schiller, quotes composer William Brittelle as saying:
I think we have to get really aggressive about deconstruction. Every single time somebody tries to put you in that box, and tries to make things objective, you just have to push back on it. Every single time.
Well sure, I guess this is useful to composers who are intent on making their individual mark, branding themselves. But from a listener's point of view, it is rather a barrier to understanding. For example, Schiller's discussion of a piece by Wally Gunn:
While there is still much work to be done in terms of devising a concrete theoretical framework for post-genre and understanding how this framework would be applied widely in the musical world, it has already served as a helpful tool for my thinking about new music. Prior to my shift towards this post-genre mentality, much of my analysis of Roomful of Teeth had to do with how non-Western classical stylistic elements broke the convention of what we’d expect from a group of classically trained musicians. Take Wally Gunn’s The Ascendant for example, a piece written for Roomful of Teeth and drum kit.
When first exploring the piece, I wondered why Gunn had decided to use the drum kit. What statement was he making by throwing a drum kit, more typically associated with pop/rock projects, into this group of singers? Was he actively trying to genre blend and expand classical music to include this type of instrumentation? My shift towards a post-genre aesthetic allowed me to rethink this analysis. My assumption that a composer’s use of drum kit had to mean something related to stylistic commentary is a problematic one within this framework; instead, by looking at Wally Gunn’s background and speaking with him about intent, I was able to gain a better understanding about this piece as an individual entity, rather than as a part of a collective genre-based musical identity. 
The problem there is the veering away from any objective understanding of the music into the psychological intentions of the composer. In addition, in the absence of any objective elements, Schiller gives us an impenetrable word-salad. What could she mean by "non-Western classical stylistic elements" or "stylistic commentary"? Yes, the piece is an individual entity, but Schiller's aesthetic prevents her from seeing anything objective in the piece. If we listen, some things are pretty clear. Blogger won't embed, so follow the link:

In the beginning, at least, there is a real resemblance to hocket, a technique used in music of the 13th and early 14th centuries. Later, there are other discernible influences. The focus on the intent of the composer is very problematic indeed, as I think I have pointed out in a few posts. The result of "post-genre aesthetic thinking" is to obfuscate understanding, not to further it.

This post got rather out of hand, didn't it? Let's end by listening to some Medieval music using hocket technique. The Wikipedia article I just linked to has a nice discussion of its use in recent music.


Marc Puckett said...

Never knew what hoquet was although I'd seen the word somewhere, probably referenced in someone's liner notes etc, and enjoyed Roomful of Teeth using the technique. The YouTube took me then to a piece by Sofia Gubaidulina, Quasi Hoquetus, which was interesting too, although I have Pfitzner and Bruckner playing in the background right now, not more Gubaidulina.

I don't find anything interesting in the obnoxious 'impenetrable word-salad', however, nor do I myself have the patience to bother with those people (so thanks! for your analysis). Looked about to see how much Internet presence 'post-genre' has, but stopped when I found this declaration of William Brittelle (Wisconsin Public Radio, back in June): "I’m allowed to do whatever I want to do." I realise I will be dismissed for not seeking further insight into the profundities of signficance there (and so can't expect to write for NewMusicBox) but, really, isn't that what 'post-genre' is about? they want to do whatever the hell they want-- to which I respond of course, by all means do so; gosh-- who is trying to stifle their creativity? No amount of rhetoric is going to make me care what you write if I can't endure to listen to your music; on the other hand, if you compose music I'm interested in listening to then I'm liable to take the time and make the effort to plumb whatever pseudo-philosophical rationale (and of course perhaps it proves to be more substantial than that) for it you've invented.

This is-- by the way-- another great benefit that the YouTubes and Spotifys et al have given to the contemporary world: we can listen to just enough Mazzoli and Brittelle as we need to do before rendering summary judgment and moving on, at a cost of pennies or less than that.

Bryan Townsend said...

Excellent riposte, Marc! I have to say, I don't have a lot of patience for this sort of stuff either. I am curious about how they are going astray, and that's about it. It is rather astonishing, isn't it, that one can read hundreds of words about "post-genre" whatever and not find a single crumb of actual knowledge or information about the music--other than it is for drum kit and singers, which is obvious from listening to the first few seconds. A lot of thinking about music these days seems to be little more than willed ignorance...