Sunday, July 10, 2011

Progressivism vs ...

A long-standing model for understanding music history is through progress: the emancipation of the dissonance, the development of new playing techniques or new musical forms. At times the pursuit of progress in music seems to become experimental, almost scientific. But there is an alternative way of seeing history and it is from Jorge Luis Borges, who suggested that artists choose their predecessors. An example of this odd-seeming notion is that after Romantic harmony, say, is developed, then you can go back to Bach and hear places where he has used 'Romantic' harmony. It isn't, of course, because it is just that our perceptions have been altered by later events.  My somewhat different idea is that, among the many things that composers are doing, one is being progressive, but the other is being conservative. No, that's not quite right... Let's call it "racinative" from "deracinate" to remove or separate from a native environment. To 'racinate' would be to return to the roots of something, to re-root rather than uproot.

It is the racinative urge, the precise opposite to the progressive urge, that compels Haydn to write fugues as the last movements of his supposedly 'progressive' string quartets op 20:

Pop artists do this all the time: it's called "back to the roots":

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. That may have been what Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were up to when they all incorporated fugal texture into many compositions. Fugue, at that point in time, was wildly out of fashion, which made it an interesting avenue to pursue. A racinative one, as opposed to a progressive one. I'm talking up using this new term because I think that the racinative impulse is not a conservative one, though it is often mistaken for such. The album Beggar's Banquet by the Rolling Stones, released in 1968, was racinative, not progressive, nor conservative. There had been so much experimenting the years previous with psychedelia, that the most radical act was to return to the old, blues roots.

Perhaps the most famous example of musical racination might be the invention of opera. No-one in Florence just before 1600 was trying to invent anything. What they were trying to do
was an attempt to revive the classical Greek drama, part of the wider revival of antiquity characteristic of the Renaissance. The members of the Camerata considered that the "chorus" parts of Greek dramas were originally sung, and possibly even the entire text of all roles; opera was thus conceived as a way of "restoring" this situation.
A classic example of racination: returning to or the attempt to rediscover the roots of something. Here is part of the very first opera that we have (this is the second one written, the first was lost):

The irony is that, in their attempt to NOT invent something new, but rather re-discover something very old, they did actually invent something entirely new: opera. Funnily enough, those trying earnestly to invent something entirely new often end up by producing something like this:

Incidently, Stravinsky noticed how well racination worked for the Florentine Camerata so he tried it himself:

Alas, I don't think you can perform the same act of racination twice...


RG said...

Your concept of racinativity is not empty. [Not faint praise.] In my way of understanding creativity and cultural contribution, being influenced by the past is as inevitable as inheriting the air. Every word, every neologism, has an etymology. But some people are more and some less aware of what and how that has happened to them.

My research in management theory has recently set me puzzling on this topic. Most management theorists (or, methodologists) seem to ignore the past. Or they mention “figures from the past” only as foils who thought and said foolish things. In reading them thus, now, as a learner, one understandably gets the impression that all they say is quite new. Of course, they might want to give that impression, thinking it an honour to have invented everything they talk about. But, if believed, they must then bear the burden of responsibility for the inadequacies of what they say. Of course, maybe they want to give the impression that what they are saying is timelessly free of error or insufficiency. Although I cannot think of a single such writer who would fail to admonish managers to assume that all systems have an ephemeral excellence at best and to be ever intent on continuously improving their management methods, I can think of no management gurus nowadays who even hint that their own theories are purely provisional, froth on the edge of an oscillating tide.

Oddly, the two earliest management thinkers of our age, contemporaries, Frederick Taylor “Scientific Management (1911)” (focused on the frontline) and Henri Fayol “Administration industrielle et générale (1916)” (focused on the executive suite) are usually depicted as stupid, rigid, arrogant, and even vicious haters of mankind. Than which, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. They lie (it is impossible to believe they are mistaken). In fact, 90% or so of every management theory today is verbally or conceptually present in the writings of those clever fellows. Perhaps current writers hope to discourage students from finding out how dependent all their ideas are on the tradition. They choose their predecessors: None!

Notwithstanding that influence is absolutely inevitable, I think an intellectual (aesthetic?) creator has therefore three options with regard to the past. 1. Look back in anger. 2. Don’t look. 2. Look for help.

Racinativity, as I take it, is the intelligent third option.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes! Thanks for the very insightful comment. I think that the claims, both of composers and management gurus, are made for strategic reasons to appeal to the marketplace in which they operate. Please see my post on manifestos for another aspect of this. This is sort of an odd modern disease in which you always present yourself as infallible, confident, entirely yourself, owning nothing to the past or anywhere else and so on.

How very odd! One nice thing about this environment is that people are so surprised and put off-balance when one engages in self-deprecating humor. It's just not fashionable to self-deprecate.

Remember that Newton said that we (he) could see so far because he "stood on the shoulders of giants".

My understanding of the racinative instinct in music is that from time to time you have to go back to the roots, like to a spring hidden in the mountains, to find a fresh place to start.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Speaking of Ancient Greeks, Heraclitus says it's "impossible to step in the same river twice."

The irony is that, in their attempt to NOT invent something new, but rather re-discover something very old, they did actually invent something entirely new: opera.

I've always felt like this is what the early music movement was really about (not intentionally, of course). I think that, in the Western World at least, we're so entirely stuck on the dichotomy of 'creating vs copying' that we don't realize how much of the two overlap. It's probably good to realize not every culture looks at creation and the arts in this way (as the quote in the link above illustrates):

[This] reminds me of interviews I had with the chief puppeteer in the major bunraku troupe, the chief chanter, and the chief shamisen player. I asked them how they trained, how they learned as children. As we all know, the standard system in Japan is to copy your master. [But] those artists said, “We do not copy our masters. Of course we watch our master and we learn. But no two human beings are alike, so it is impossible for me to copy my master. I have to internalize my art, make it my own. Then I can become a great artist.” This is a wonderful illustration of the solution to what might seem to be impossibly opposite goals: to “replicate” and to “create” anew.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Oh, and it's appropriate you quoted Bloom--the history of Western Literary theory and 'authorial intent' is so completely bound with the socioeconomic structures in much of the Western world it really shouldn't be a surprise we tend to put so much stock into the creation by an author. Fits in perfectly well with the Creator zeitgeist of Christianity as well as how that ties into the economics of remuneration for work which marks the type of Economic Support Systems that directly leads to commercialization.

Bryan Townsend said...

Welcome back, Jon. Very interesting post on the differences between the economics and transmission of folk, art and popular musics.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

It's been a busy couple of weeks for me, but your posts always give me much food for thought.

Yeah, I was taken by that piece and I think it can be very useful for making distinctions that could be very useful in all these discussions we're having at Greg's blog (as well as here)!