Saturday, June 24, 2017

fifty years after Leonard B. Meyer published Music, the Arts, and Ideas, some thoughts about what he called the problem of pastiche eclecticism

Fifty years ago, Leonard B. Meyer published a book called Music, the Arts, and Ideas.  I learned about this book reading Kyle Gann's blog over the last few years.  I picked up the book and it's been great reading.  The short version for those who don't plan to read it is Meyer proposed we were, in the West, looking at a new era in which teleological conceptions of history had been abandoned and there was an end to the avant garde. Instead of some new mainstream and dominant musical style there would be a plethora of styles and forms co-existing for the long haul.

As Gann recounted things at his blog this idea was apparently considered controversial and provocative.  Having been born in the final quarter of the 20th century it's impossible to see how Meyer's observations back "then" can be anything but pedestrian and obvious now.  Still, times change and perceptions change with them.  It would have seemed that anyone with a solid knowledge of the span of what we now call the Baroque era in music would know we've had this kind of breakdown of a unified international style making way for fragmentary isolated innovations in various regions and schools of thought before.  Ars perfecta gave way to the proto-Baroque and early Baroque styles.  Manfred Bukofzer has a nice, readable monograph on the topic.

One of the observations Bukofzer made that's worth noting is that in popular imagination people tend to think of the Baroque era and immediately think of the late Baroque period, or the "high" Baroque era first; very often it never even occurs to people to think of early Baroque composers such as Monteverdi or middle Baroque composers such as Heinrich Schutz.  Adorno isn't the only German writer on music to make the egregious mistake of treating Western music in general and German music in particular as spanning J. S. Bach through Schoenberg, it's a mistake that is prevalent in a lot of music education depending on where you live and who taught you what.  People committed to the era of tonality in the sense of major and minor keys are not interested in the wealth of pre-tonal music.  What's been interesting to me is seeing how within avant garde reactions to Romanticism what a number of composers sought to do was embrace elements of music theory and performance that date back to the Renaissance, the medieval era or the early and middle Baroque eras.  In a phrase these moves could be thought of as seeking to back to a kind of pre-eighteenth century set of options for music, or pre-Enlightenment musical options.   

There's a strand of lazy polemic against modernism, frequently straitjacketed to a polemic against Adorno and Marxist ideas that claims that Marxists were against tonality because it represented Western values.  This seems like a fairly impossible argument to sustain on historical grounds.  Was ... Hans Eisler really a champion of atonality?  Meyer pointed out half a century ago that it's impossible to seriously sustain an equation of radicalism in one sphere with radicalism in all other spheres.  He noted that some of the artists and writers who were most radical in one respect were deeply conservative or even reactionary in other respects.  Stravinsky and T. S. Eliot were innovative formalists in the arts while being pretty hidebound in political and social thought.  Schoenberg could be radical in musical invention while being a traditionalist in other respects.  As Richard Taruskin and others have tried pointing out, the embrace that composers like Schoenberg or Scriabin made of occult mysticism can't be ignored as systematically as has been done by 20th century musicology.   

That's mentioned in passing--the problem I'm describing at the moment is that there's a kind of conservative, reactionary sort who condemns modernism based on a stereotyped advocacy of atonality when a more honest survey of the modernist trends will suggest that many of the most explicitly avant garde musicians openly sought to go back to pre-eighteenth century possibilities or to cast about beyond Western cultural conventions.  You can complain about whether John Cage's ideas in music adequately or accurately reflect Buddhist beliefs, for instance, but the idea that Cage's ideas spelled the death knell of the Western tradition by way of an attack on its foundations is too flat a response.  Given the grisly and often hypocritical double bind arts critics subjected American music to in comparing new musical works to Beethoven or Wagner, it's not the least bit surprising that American composers rejected the terms of the game as laid down by institutional critics.   

So, now we're belatedly getting to some observations Meyer made half a century ago: 

Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 327
The most important of these ideas and values were those of Romanticism, especially the beliefs and attitudes associated with organicism. Organicism posits that all relationships in a work of art should be the result of a gradual growth in which a germinal idea (in music perhaps a motif, a harmonic progression, or even a sonority) develops into an inviolable unity (a movement or a whole composition), and that the process of development should be governed by an inner necessity and an economy of means such that nothing in the work is either accidental or superfluous.  

page 343
In the ideology of Romanticism greatness was linked not only to magnitude but to the prizing of genius; and genius was, in turn, bound to the creation of innovation. This coupling occurred because the Idea of Progress made innovation an important value and there needed to be causal agents of change. Geniuses were believed to be such agents. But if the future is unknowable and chancy, and if change per se ceases to be a desideratum, then the creation of categorical novelty (for example, the devising of new musical constraints) becomes less important, even pointless, because there is no assurance that innovation will "advance" musical style or lead anywhere--that is, be part of a coherent, predictable pattern. For these reasons, few "hats-off" geniuses will be hailed in the coming years, and creativity will involve not the devising of new constraints (for instance, serialism or statistical techniques) but the inventive permutation and combination of existing constraint-modes, especially as manifested in stylistic eclecticism.  

page 344
The theoretical problem of pastiche eclecticism in the arts has to do with what, if any, is the rationale for the interrelationships, both proximate and remote, among excerpts and styles within compositions: a problem that has scarcely been dealt with, let alone solved.   

To reformulate these observations in the 21st century with an eye toward the Baroque era in its full range of time, Meyer lived and wrote during a period of maximal fragmentation and innovation.  These cycles of consolidation and fragmentation come and go.  Perhaps we're in a swing toward the possibilities of consolidation.  At this point there are not exactly rules left to break for innovation's sake.  What rules you break depend on what style of music you mean to write.  If you break all the rules of Style X then you are not necessarily breaking any rules with respect to Style X, you might inadvertently be composing music in Style Y.  What is against the rules in one idiom is standard operating procedure in another.   

The idea of organicism is actually preserved rather than rejected in Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and this is one of the foundational mistakes critics of Schoenberg can at times forget.  What they wanted Schoenberg to have not cast off were all the conventions of extended chromatic traditional Western harmonic practice from the previous century.  Schoenberg felt all those options were figuratively and literally played out.  Adorno thought so, too, to the point that he condemned jazz as being unable to do anything more than instantiate a brutishly commodified dance music that was, as the saying went, fun to dance to but dreadful to listen to.  Adorno has not lived down the infamy of that polemic and for good reasons but I'll get to those reasons later.  We'll just say for the moment that elitist racist snobbery is not strictly the confine of the right or the left where white people with a penchant for German music are concerned.   

What's interesting to consider here is that Meyer wrote on the one hand of the problem of pastiche eclecticism and on the other of the nature of organicism.  It would seem like a simple option to take gestural mutation and organicism as pathways to a pastiche eclecticism in which persistence of gestural identity could be explored across the syntactics and conventions of different styles. 

The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer’s View of Twentieth-Century Music
George Rochberg
Copyright © 1984 by the University of Michigan
ISBN 0-472-10037-8

Page 241 (from “On the Third String Quartet”)
Granting pluralism, how is a composer to deal with it? From the inside out, i.e., from the internal psychic imagery which becomes the musical gesture to its artistic manifestation. Gesture, singly or in combination, successive or simultaneous, is the determining factor—not style, language, system or method. 

In sum, this possibility lays in being able to think of a single gesture as it could be realized or developed across panoply of musical styles.  This doesn't even have to be what is colloquially called a "postmodern" approach.  When Ferdinand Rebay composed his Historic Suite for flute and guitar where he subjected a theme to realization in the styles of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert this was explicable in a traditional teleological arc of history within German music.  You can accept or reject that teleological approach or decide you don't dig the music (I happen to enjoy the piece for flute and guitar myself but I've been admitted fan of a good chunk of Rebay's music for years now).   

If a composer were to attempt to do what Rochberg suggests, working from the foundational possibilities latent within a musical gesture regardless of style, language, system or method, then this involves not merely the acquisition of craft in the most general sense, it will involve mastering the syntactic conventions of every style to which a composer would want to have access in a possible pan-stylistic experiment.  You need to know what things you're trying to make a fusion of before you can make a fusion of them. 

The likelihood that such a successful fusion of styles and idioms in the 21st century will come from partisans of Romantic music seems remote.  Meyer's monograph on the Romantic era has a few statements I'd like to consult: 

ISBN 0-226-52152-4

page 142
... our age has conceived of creativity almost entirely in terms of the discovery and use of novelty. ... undue emphasis on the generation of novelty has resulted in almost total neglect of the other facet of creativity--choosing. Of course, choosing is always done by some individual. But the constraints that seem most to influence the compositional choices which shape the course of music history are not those peculiar to the psyche of the individual composer, but those of the prevalent musical style and of the larger cultural community.

page 220
Put aphoristically: radical individualism seeks to undermine the norms on which its expression depends 

page 221
The valuing of individual inner experience is evident in the shift from the eighteenth-century idea that music represented emotions (affects) to the nineteenth century belief that music expressed the feeling of the composer.

Feeling is all in all; the name is sound and smoke, obscuring heaven's pure glow.

Perhaps the way we could "translate" that last expression is to suggest that Romantic era thinkers wanted us to lean heavily on what Daniel Kahneman described as System 1 thinking in the book Thinking Fast and Slow. System 1 is a shorthand for the intuitive cognitive processes that happen so fast your brain doesn't even stop to consciously think about the fact that it is thinking in those terms.  You see a banana and recognize it as a banana without stopping to think that you're doing this.  System 2 is, colloquially speaking, the analytical and very self-aware range of thought processes where you set your mind to analyzing stuff.  Romantics wanted their art, if you will, to be apprehended immediately and in the most potent way by System 1 thinking, while also affirming a kind of canon in which System 2 analysis could be brought to bear.  If that seems like the set-up for a great big nasty epistemological and pedagogical double bind ... it might well have been. 

Meyer's proposal noted above was that 20th century theorizing about innovation and creativity had made a mistake in fixating on innovation and revolution at the expense of considering the simple fact that everybody makes decisions and everybody makes those decisions within the contexts of prior constraints.  The fact that some of us take time to think about the nature of the constraints doesn't mean we're going to end up making music or art or literature that has no "soul".  It is here that I would say an observation from Adorno is pertinent: 

Aesthetic Theory
Theodore Adorno
Copyright (c) 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
ISBN 0-8264-6757-1

from pages 337-338
Art without reflection is the retrospective fantasy of a reflexive age. Theoretical considerations and scientific findings have at all times been amalgamated with art, often as its bellwether [emphasis added], and the most important artists were not those who hesitated. Well-known instances of this are Piero della Francesca's discovery of aerial perspective and the aesthetic speculations of the Florentine Camerata, in which opera originated. The latter is paradigmatic of a form that, once it had become the darling of the public, was cloaked after the fact with the aura of naivet√©, whereas it originated in theory, literally in an invention. Similarly, it was only the introduction of equal temperament in the seventeenth century that permitted modulation through the circle of fifths and, with it, Bach, who gratefully acknowledged this in the title of his great keyboard composition. Even in the nineteenth century, impressionist technique in painting was based on the rightly or wrongly interpreted scientific analysis of retinal processes. Of course the theoretical and reflexive elements in art seldom went untransformed. At times, art misunderstood the sciences to which it appealed, as is perhaps the case most recently with electronic music. Yet the productive impulse was little harmed by the rationality that was brought to bear on it. The physiological theorems of the impressionists were probably foils for the in part fascinated, in part socially critical experiences of the metropolis and the dynamic of their paintings. By means of the discovery of a dynamic immanent to the reified world, they wanted to resist reification, which was most palpable in metropolitan life. In the nineteenth century, natural scientific explanations functioned as the self-unconscious agent of art. The basis of this affinity between art and science was that the ratio to which the most progressive art of the epoch reacted was none other than the ratio of the natural sciences. Whereas in the history of art, scientific theories tend to wither away, without them artistic practices would no more have developed than, inversely, these theorems can adequately explain such practices. [emphasis added]

If at a number of points I consider Adorno to be an elitist snob I heartily agree with the idea that artistic creation and perception require more than a stereotypically "intuitive" appreciation.  And to invoke Adorno's observation by way of invoking contemporary scientific theories about the brain and mind, art should engage both the left as well as the right hemisphere of the brain.  If in the long run serialism and atonality have failed they have failed because, to invoke scientific theoretical explanations, they are styles of music that lacked the informational redundancy to permit their appreciation.  Even Adorno eventually registered a complaint that there were types of music that eschewed tonality for which there was no defense for its existence beyond an appeal to the precompositional procedures used to get the sonic result.  To borrow Adorno's own idiom here, there were those painters who defended their paintings by way of appealing to the palette they used to paint from.  Messiaen at one point reportedly complained about an international gray on gray ... . 

Meyer's observation about the whole of the Romantic era and of Romanticism is worth returning to. One of his most salient proposals about the era of the Romantics was that they did not, in fact, really introduce a whole lot of truly revolutionary ways of composing music.  For all the talk of rejecting conventions and traditions the Romantics were, in the end, kinda just posers.  Meyer put it more politely. 

page 222
In music, one of the discoveries of Romanticism was how to hide convention, yet have it too.  

He was more explicit about a foundational conceptual shift from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century European conception of musical forms. 

page 245-246
... While music of the Classic period employs plan-based patternings, these are almost always coordinated with and dominated by syntactic scripts. In the nineteenth century, the situation is more or less reversed: what had been specific syntactic scripts tend to be subsumed within or transformed into general plans. For instance, from this very broad point of view, the history of the practice and theory of sonata form during the nineteenth century might be interpreted as the transformation of a script--a tonally defined hierarchic schema of slots--into a thematic plan, often of a dialectic or narrative sort (thesis/antithesis --> synthesis; opposition/conflict ---. resolution). More generally, as suggested earlier (and argued later), the role of the secondary parameters in the shaping of musical forms and processes becomes increasingly important during the course of the nineteenth century. The forms and processes thus shaped are based on plans, not on scripts.

I would venture to propose that if you survey the academic literature discussing what sonata forms even are and how they are to be identified that the obsession with plans may have provided us with a giant body of pedagogical and theoretical literature that defined sonata forms in terms of plans rather than syntactic scripts.  The Romantic era that purported to shake off the shackles of 18th century convention may have codified sonata forms into a grand post-Beethoven SONATA FORM.  It's not that this vision of sonata form didn't correspond to a syntactic script that was frequently used in 18th century music; it's that it was presented as "the" plan for writing a sonata.  Thus you'd get someone like A. B. Marx propounding a sonata with a vigorous masculine theme followed up by an elusive feminine theme set in dialectical discourse by way of the sonata form in which the two are brought into tonal unity in the recapitulation. And so on and so forth. 

There's just this huge problem with that kind of presentation, it doesn't correspond to a detailed examination of what 18th century composers actually did.  For something like that ... 

Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth Century Sonata
James Hepokoski & Warren Darcy
Copyright (c) 2006 by Oxford University Press

there are books to be read.  But let's imagine that the 19th and 20th centuries transpired with this aforementioned fixation on plans. If you were to combine the perceived "exhaustion" of Romantic era planning and convention (because, as Meyer put it, the Romantics were busy disguising rather than truly rejecting conventions) where could you go?  Twelve-tone composers attempted to take the principle of organicism and thematicism all the way toward what Schoenberg once dubbed the "emancipation of dissonance".   

pages 335-336

With the advent first of atonality and then of serialism, motivic structure (together with the organizing capabilities of the secondary parameters) had to bear the main burden of musical process and form. As this occurred, the need for constraints governing the order of motives and variants became pressing. For not only does pure motivic variation lack any natural order or direction, but it is entirely open-ended (that is, a transformation can continue endlessly). Schoenberg, both the advocate and victim of this development of Romanticism, was aware of the need for constraints [emphasis added] ...  

Discovering a basis for (a set of constraints governing) motivic succession in the absence of the conventions of tonal syntax and form was only one of a host of problems bequeathed by Romanticism and its attendant composition strategies and proclivities. As many scholars have pointed out ... many of the beliefs and attitudes, as well as the compositional problems, of the nineteenth century have persisted through the twentieth, affecting the choices of composers and the conceptions of scholars. ...

page 338

Once the absence of a tonal center was allowed, compositional choices could no longer be thought of as departures, however distant, from the norms of tonal syntax. Conceptualization thus intensified the problems of compositional choice. What was needed was not new strategies, but new rules.  One striking manifestation of this need was the deep and abiding concern of composers--especially composers of "advanced" music such as Schoenberg, Babbitt, Stockhausen, Ligeti, and Xenakis--with music theory and aesthetics. [emphases added] 

The increased importance of motivic relationships in the music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the need for constraints governing the succession of motivic variants, was pointed out in Chapter 8. But a syntax of motivic succession was not realized. Instead, other strategies for limiting compositional choice were devised. Of these, the twelve-tone method was probably the most widespread and influential, perhaps partly because its constraints, though not syntactic, were explicitly formulated and hence could be readily taught, learned, and applied. Though composers of twelve-tone music invented ways of ensuring serial continuity (for instance, linking row forms through common intervals), no shared constraints governing the ordering of specific realizations of the row or of the motives derived from the row were devised. [emphasis added] 

page 339

The failure to develop such constraints explains in part why, despite the revolutions in pitch organization and the "emancipation of dissonance," the forms of the Classic style not only persisted, but were often used by twelve-tone composers in a more conservative way than they had been in the music of the preceding generation of composers. [emphasis added] For these forms--sonata form, rondo, theme and variations, dance forms, and so on--provided the constraints that enabled composers to choose appropriate melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic embodiments for their twelve-tone rows. What I am suggesting is that serial composers and others employed "borrowed" forms not solely (or even primarily) because they considered themselves to be heirs to the great tradition of European art music or because of latent neoclassical inclinations, but because they had virtually no alternative. [emphasis added] They could not do without some way of deciding how the motivic variants that they derived from the row should be combined with or succeed one another. ... 

It is at this point that, contra someone like Scruton, I might suggest that the atonalists were truly attempting to live out in their attempts at musical revolution what earlier Romantic-era composers were merely paying lip-service to, the casting off of conventions to embrace a singular approach to art.  But, and here we can cycle back to the simple existence of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, there's a world of difference between appealing to a kind of System 1 thinking that can readily grasp the implications of conventions and a kind of System 2 thinking that is put in service of trying to imagine new constraints for motivic/thematic articulation and expansion.  As Meyer put it, all the attempts to formulate a post-tonal syntactic macro-organizational paradigm for music in the West have largely failed to come up with a successful alternative.  Yet the sense that the tonal idiom has been "played out" has not necessarily gone away, either.   

Most interesting, however, is Meyer's statement that the atonal composers ended up embracing versions of the conventional forms of the tonal era and worked with them in ways that were even more rigid than those used by tonal composers.  And, as quoted above, Meyer suggested this was not so much because they really viewed themselves as heirs of the great tradition but because they had virtually no alternative

There's a potential "lesson" here, however.  What if it's possible to cast off any consideration for one constraint in musical art so long as you strictly observe another constraint in another parameter?   

Meyer noted the rather obvious but still useful point that  

... But serial composers were by no means the only ones to be plagued by the problem of how to order motivic variants in the absence of some sort of high-level constraints. Virtually all composers who wrote motivically based music employed traditional forms to shape large-scale organization. Bartok and Hindemith may serve as examples.  

This doesn't mean that Bartok and Hindemith necessarily employed major and minor key scales.  Both made use of expanded pitch organization, explicable within the twelve-tone equal-tempered scale but not necessarily bound to the tonal systems of the previous century. 

But let's get back to this idea that it's possible to be stringent in one parameter and mercurial in another.  I've written in the past about Hepokoski and Darcy's Elements of Sonata Form.  They propose a concept called "rotation". Suppose you were to employ that concept of rotation (that Theme 1 and Theme 2 and Theme 3 and their respective transitions appear in the same order through each macro-structural component of a musical work) and abandon traditional tonality?  What if you leaned more toward octatonic scales?  You might get something like the guitar sonatas of Dusan Bogdanovic, who has written sonata forms in which traditional tonality is nowhere to be seen and yet the principle of "rotation" is readily observed. 

Or we could go in another direction, the matter of pastiche eclecticism that Meyer mentioned in a passage quoted earlier--what if you employed "rotation" in a way where, in a sonata form, you presented your exposition themes in a musical style that is different from the musical style the themes get presented in in the recapitulation space?  For instance ...  say ... you could have a theme presented in a ragtime style whose gestures are re-presented in the recapitulation space as an aggressive Texas-blues slide guitar idiom.  Or it could be something like 18th century high Baroque counterpoint. 

The idea here is that if you were to heed organicism (which, in my case, I would be strongly inclined to base on something like Charles Ives' approach that J. Peter Burkholder described as "cumulative form") and a more or less conventional quasi-tonal idiom you could subject a set of themes to drastic stylistic alteration based on knowledge of the syntactics of a variety of styles while retaining the cohesion of the sonata form based on the concept of "rotation".  An audience could be primed to expect the themes to come back in precisely the order they were given them in the exposition, but the themes could be substantially reworked.  Haydn did this kind of thing as a matter of course. 

By recovering an approach to sonata forms based not on 19th century theoretical "plans" but on, as it were, a more recent conception of sonata forms as a range of syntactic scripts that were not necessarily even strictly codified in the 18th century in spite of their rampant use; and then refracting all of this through organicism; it could be possible to arrive at one possible "solution" to the problem of pastiche eclecticism as it was presented by Meyer in his Music, the Arts and Ideas.  It could be done by way of the path suggested by George Rochberg, through the manipulation and expansion of the gesture across style, language, system and method, not merely regardless of those things. Deploying the concept of "rotation" as a gateway to intra-opus stylistic mutation is just one possible "solution" to what Meyer described as the "problem" of pastiche eclecticism. 

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