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February 2, 2015


Kyle Gann

Sara, I completely agree with what I see as your overall point. Certainly I am not one of those people who finds European classical music superior to Indonesian music in any way. As a composer, though, I do have to insist that the way Western (at least) composers operate exhibits a certain limited teleology. Within a certain style - let's say postminimalism, being the one I'm involved with - composers do learn from and imitate each other, and a certain ideal appears, comes into view, towards which everyone moves temporarily, and then past a certain point of crystallization they begin to diverge again and the style unravels. I'm trying to do something, and some other composer has a great idea that I can use, so I incorporate it into what I'm doing, and they steal from me, and the process accelerates. Rococo music was going nowhere until Mozart and Haydn met, and they started stealing from each other and created this wonderful new musical language, which flourished for several decades. But I would say it's rather like building sand castles, and at a certain point the endpoint is reached and the sand castle falls down and everyone has to start over again. So I guess I would say that, as a point of composer psychology, the process is very real, but as a historical principle it has limitations which need to be kept in mind. Styles are born, they grow, they flourish, they become decrepit, and they die. So, yes, the old-fashioned kind of musicology has probably put too much emphasis on this process, and it does not create permanent value judgments, but it does say something about how musicians operate. Can we relativize and limit it rather than reject it completely?

Sara Haefeli

Oh yes, absolutely. I think the danger in teleology is assuming the endpoint is fixed, stable, and always desirable. I do not want to minimize the importance of influence. Your image of building sand castles is powerful. (And poetic!) Thanks.

Virginia Anderson

There are no actual ways to avoid time in the making of influence, but as Cage noted about Ives, we do have a 'field situation' in which one can choose from the whole of what one hears (old, new, Western, non-Western, pop, so-called 'high art'),* and not just try to outdo what was just done before. It's that linear history construct that stems from Romanticism and kept serialism and post-serialism trying to 'out-complexity' its forebears for decades. Not only did this make for some pretty lousy music, it actually was old-fashioned — stuck in late Romantic expressionism, whatever changes there may have been in the sounds themselves. But real evolution is less of a tree or river (growing out or flowing) and more about interactions: a series of reactions, adaptations, adjustments to what the composer experiences. In grad school, Leo Treitler made us read The Origin of Species in his Philosophy of History course, to show that Darwin didn't view evolution in the way that historical models of Western Music claim. In fact, the model is closer to Spencerian social evolution, a nasty thing that is all hung up on 'us' being evolved and 'them' being primitive. It's all about improvement of the state of 'man' kind. And an aside: I especially like it that you've objected to Howard Goodall, who infested the BBC a few years back with his programme.

*(One can also choose from what one sees, or experiences in other ways).

Sara Haefeli

Yes! An early reader of this blog post is an environmentalist and she also pointed out that evolution is not teleological. Your comments echo her reactions. Wouldn't it be interesting to study music history more along the lines of the false starts, weird mutations, and cul-de-sacs of evolution than the nineteenth-century teleological model?

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Dedicated to the idea that music criticism can be literate and fun to read, The Avid Listener fosters weekly discussions between scholars and novices alike.
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