Wednesday, August 12, 2015

revisiting an old idea from an old guest post in light of a newly discovered book by Leonard B. Meyer called Music, the Arts, and Ideas

Some of you regular readers may recall this guest post over at Internet Monk back from 2012.
“There Is neither Art nor Pop, neither Indie or Mainstream…”

Well, in that I proposed from Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 1:19-20 that there was no high or low, rock or pop, classical or non-classical, indie or mainstream.  Now, of course, it's not that these stylistic distinctions don't exist, they clearly do!  But what it means for a Christian who is also a musician is that following Christ suggests that if in and through Christ Jew and Gentile are reconciled to God and to each other; if in and through Christ it was God the Father's pleasure to reconcile all things to Himself, then a fairly natural application of this observation would be that if this reconciliation is true about people then it can also be about the music those people create and share.

Which gets me to the 1967 book by Leonard B. Meyer called Music, the Arts, and Ideas. There is a lot that could be written about this book but, basically, Wenatchee The Hatchet thinks you should read it.  It's heady and at times opaque in terms of literary style but Meyer's prediction back in 1967 was that there would no longer be a musical "mainstream" for what we call classical music.  There wouldn't be any mainstream at all and there was no longer even going to be an avant garde.  That particular point can be explicated a bit later, the kicker for this paragraph is Meyer predicted what he called a dynamic steady state, a polystylistic stability that would become the new norm.

One of the practical bits of advice he had for composers and musicologists of the 1960s in academic settings was to not imagine that total serialism and atonality would ever become the new dominant style.  There would be many, many reasons for this but the simplest one had to do with a matter of "redundancy".  In terms of information that has to be perceived for there to be a musical experience, Meyer proposed that the shortcoming of atonality and particularly of total serialism was that it foisted too much information too fast on an audience that was not privy to the precompositional constraints and methods composers of this music brought to the table.  In other words, there were composers writing music that was not so much music as what Meyer and Adorno described as a set of relationships to be studied.  Any question about why on earth anyone would want to LISTEN to total serialism could be met with an objection by way of a defense of the chart establishing the shrewdness of the precompositional process that led to the musical result.

In other words, it looks pretty kick-ass on paper there but you won't hear why that is in the finished product.  Meyer anticipated that over time that sort of music wouldn't last because people literally would not be able to remember it.  People don't have the mental bandwidth to remember music where every split second must be heard as it is in order for the music to be understood and appreciated.

There was another reason there would no avant garde, not just because what had become known as the avant garde had become a crew demanding the impossible of its soon-to-be dwindling audience, but also because Meyer proposed that we had reached a point that Fukuyama would later call the "end of history".  Francis Schaeffer's variation was to say the Christian worldview was no longer endorsed.  What Meyer actually described was that history had become non-teleological.  It no longer even had a goal and the avant garde as a progressive movement or dynamic within the arts is only ideologically feasible in a history in which a goal is presupposed.  No goal for human history?  No possibility of the avant garde.  That's fleshed out a bit in a chapter called "The Renaissance is over", and Meyer proposed that inherent in a Protestant Christianity that considered self-improvement and self-refinement important it was possible for an avant garde in the arts to emerge because of the teleological approach to both personal and collective history.  That no longer applies.

Meyer, however, noted that the desire for self-improvement didn't go away.  It was no longer an aspiration to sainthood but to self-improvement.  More or less, the self-help industry became the secular iteration of aspiring to the perfection of the fully understood self in place of a Christian contemplative/ethical tradition. But Meyer noted that it's not that traditionalists and traditions would cease to exist, it's that they would exist in a realm of arts and ideas more formalist in conception and more wide-ranging in options. 

So, where does that go with this blog?  It's been fun to discover that what Wenatchee The Hatchet has taken as a given over the last twenty years, that we have a wonderful poly-stylistic present to enjoy and share, was anticipated by a musicologist half a century ago.  What it can mean at a practical level may be more easily explained by someone like Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brouer--he has said that the future of music is probably in stylistic fusions but that the academy has not even bothered considering this musical route because, well, their academics and so they're busy studying the styles that do exist rather than exploring how fusions across styles may be possible or practical, let alone actual.

For Christian musicians there is a theological (Meyer might say ideological) incentive to explore what fusions are possible.  Each style can be its style but if followers of Christ are trusting in the effective reconciliation of previously inimical groups this can be applied to music.  "Classical" and "popular" music haven't even been at odds in many a culture.  Sure, the high Classic era sound might not seem anchored in Polish and Austrian and German folk music but that doesn't mean these things have not interacted. 

Sherman Alexie and others can say no good art comes from assimilation but let's play with that idea a little.  Have good cultures come from obsession with cultural/ethnic purity?  It's not as though Richard Wagner's ideas about the inability of Jews to have musical or any other culture with "soul" couldn't fit into the idea that no good art comes from assimilation and that all really good art is tribal.  But what if really good art that is tribal comes from tribes that kill other people?  And a point Sherman Alexie may be able to appreciate is that when so many American Indians got massacred that very few of them even know how to speak their own languages how will truly tribal American Indian arts and literature thrive?  Alexie's written some fine stuff in the English language but in that sense his art was assimilated via language before he was even a cult figure.  Tribalism and assimilationism may just be dynamics that exist along a continuum and one is not necessarily bad or good. 

To formulate this in terms of the Christian canonical documents, if we take Galatians and Colossians to apply to the music and not just the peoples who are reconciled to God through Christ, we may get to have some fun exploring how each culture can be as pure as it wishes to be while those who are interested in how their at times contrasting aesthetics can be reconciled through a fusion can do that, too.

So that's sort of a rambling, roundabout teaser for why Leonard B. Meyer's Music, the Arts, and Ideas was a very, very fun read.  It'll also get to why Andrew Durkin's Decomposition was such a disappointment.  He needed at least two more Meyer books under his belt before he undertook a ramble of 300 pages that covered things Meyer knocked out in 100 pages almost half a century ago and stuff that Paul Hindemith covered in the first 40 pages of A Composer's World. :(

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