A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   August 24, 2006   next

Progress. Did you take in a short breath? Yes, that word does it.

Like productivity -- the term that began the idea for these commentaries months ago -- progress has an unpleasant taste to many artists. It's come to mind because of Pluto. You remember Pluto? The former planet? There's an encyclopedia on my shelf that predates Pluto's short-lived ascendancy to the community of planets. At the end of the section entitled, "The Eight Big Planets and the Hundreds of Little Planets," the encyclopedia describes the planets from Mercury to Neptune and notes that some 600 planetoids (not yet called asteroids) orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter. And it concludes the section on the solar system on page 3118, quoting Tennyson: "Let knowledge grow from more to more, But more of reverence in us dwell."

Tennyson thought about the growth of knowledge without diminishing art or awe. Growth, development, advance, evolution -- all are components of what we call progress. We even call chord movements 'progressions.' New instruments have been developed, new techniques for working. Composers don't merely move from one style to another, they evolve or they rebel, they assimilate or reject. They evaluate, they select, they explore ... all again characteristics of those who, in other fields, would talk about 'making progress.' Indeed, even composers are known to toss the cliché about making progress on a composition as they move toward its completion.

But when the word is abstracted from any particular set of events, when it no longer refers to (say) an invention or an instrument or a method of engraving, 'progress' is accorded a special status of artistic freakishness. A perfectly useful word is fit with a dunce cap and ushered into the conversational corner. What is it that composers fear about this word?

Ask composers whether their work is new, and they will usually assent. Ask them if the work is unique, and they will agree. Ask if it represents a change from a previous work (theirs or others) and they will consider the answer self-evident as a result of artistic creativity. Slide them gently along, and spring the question -- does your work enhance or contribute to musical progress? -- and they will stammer over the prog-word.

It's happening now. Progress? In the arts? I can hear it from the ubiquitous compositional 'they' that is the collective body of composers I have met over the past forty years. But if it's not progress, what is it? Some sort of lateral step? No step at all, just a sonic blob slipping viscously along among other sonic blobs? Perhaps a soul in isolation? Just a random event that by happy accident synthesizes recent musical experience, bundling it into a musical score or an electronic juxtaposition or artisto-parental advice handed in summary form to a student?

Music from 2000 and 1950 and 1900 and 1850 back into the mists of history is all different music. How did it get to be different? Certainly not through an artistic Brownian motion. It is not merely accident that in Art and Physics, Leonard Shlain sees parallels and convergences between science and the arts. But Shlain is contemporary, so let's go back a millennium, where there was the complementary pair of trivium and quadrivium that made up the liberal arts. The trivium was grammar, rhetoric and logic, but the quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy -- music in with what we today consider harder sciences than rhetoric. Somewhere between St. Augustine and Leonard Shlain, composers seem to have taken a sidestep out of the motion of knowledge that would "grow from more to more."

Progress once had a modern notion as well -- those history texts whose gold-on-black embossed covers boasted billowing smokestacks. A 1939 book entitled The Progress of Music by George Dyson has been difficult to find for my collection of philosophical curiosities, but Christopher Palmer notes, "In the first chapter [...], Dyson wondered whether the essentially creative spirit of our western music would ever return to the place where many of its abiding foundations had been laid, namely the Church. 'Will she ever become the mother of all endeavour, the home of all sorts and conditions of artists ... will the ethereal beauty of a string quartet secure a corner in one of her transepts?'"

Not exactly what I had in mind. Closer to the point is Warren Dwight Allen, whose Philosphies of Music History: A Study of General Histories of Music 1600-1960 has been taken out and slammed huffingly back into my bookshelves many times (and is mercifully out of print). Contemporaneous with Dyson (the first edition of Philosophies was published seven years after Dyson's Progress), Allen traces the first split to Eighteenth Century France, where authority (the preservation of classic traditions) and progress (advances in culture, science, exploration and communication) came to be at odds. He follows it into the romantic era (wherein lived the aforementioned Tennyson), with its burgeoning attention to the development of natural talent because "progress was [...] a necessary and inevitable process of development of inborn potentialities." He devotes two chapters to development, progress and "that great doctrine of the nineteenth century, the doctrine of evolution" without touching on the composers' viewpoints. (He even points out cases of reverse progress, such as in the simplification of hymn writing over the three hundred years that ended in the basic harmonies of the late Nineteenth Century choir books, a process that continued after Allen's book following the Vatican II reforms in Catholicism.)

I'm not hawking progress here. But I am trying to put my finger on what characteristics and implications of that simple word engender such revulsion. It started with Nineteeth Century scholar François Fétis, who claimed "art does not progress; it transforms itself." And our old friend Theodor Adorno comes into play as well; according to Stephen Bronner in Dialectics at a Standstill, "Art does not progress for Adorno, it pulsates. The work of art, with its appropriated materials and dynamic capacity for engendering reflection, produces its own temporality." The idea that art does not progress is repeated by John Briggs in Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos ("art does not progress but tries in each generation to connect the unique spirit of a time with a primordial insight that lies deeper than chaos"), and James Sallis insists in a review of China Miéville that "Art does not progress but forever circles back upon itself, reinventing itself and its vessels." It was, of course, a standard proclamation of the erstwhile avant-garde, which claimed a dramatic separation from the past. And finally we can call upon the sage Wendy Carlos, who wrote a decade ago, "art does not progress, primitive to advanced, like medicine or science -- like our humanity, it 'just is'."

None of these claims actually prove the point, nor conversely do they explain what it is that propels music from one way of working inevitably to another, and why Bach could not follow Wagner -- nor Schubert Stravinsky nor Palestrina Beethoven.

Eliot Handelman recently wrote in the CEC discussion group, "Composing is really overwhelmingly technical, the next biggest part being the pseudocreativity involved in recreating what is essentially known, and the rest we can attribute to chaos. Any kind of newness in music involves the technical manifestation of an idea." He continues, "We should have a highly developed 'science of music' -- a precise way of discussing music, a computational philosophy of musical impalpables -- i.e., of the creative problem. If we can develop this we can really revolutionize music: that such development requires intensive creative antennae -- and that the best music always seems to point to that direction. We're at a threshold, and we can cross it. [An author] struck me rather as propounding the narcissistic view of music as personal self-fulfillment of self-expressive needs, and who cares what anyone thinks. This does not seem to me like a way of conducing to anything better than pseudocreativity. Of course everyone has the right to do this, but not by putting down the other, to me more interesting possibility where we can in fact develop models of some kinds of creativity."

Handelman has slipped out the side door and taken the argument with him. Stripping the older concept of creativity of its skin and muscle, he finds no bone. It's not gone, but rather it's never been there. The whole concept of progress vanishes with it.

But this is my doggone blog. What do I think? We've got on our hands an abused word that, like 'classical music', is fraught with baggage it will never set down. In fact, I'm more in agreement with Handelman that we synthesize ('pseudocreate') the known with a measure of chaos, a bit of Brownian motion perhaps, and in the process change the look, taste, feel, shape, sound and heft. When people lift up their heads, they notice the change, and it represents the spike that feels like progress: Beethoven's harmonic spike opening the first symphony, Stravinsky's octophonic spike in Rite, Stockhausen's electroacoustic spike in Gesang, Riley's tonal spike in In C. None break with the past, though each ruptures the relationship with part of it while acquiring previously unused information (harmonic distortion, clusterizing, approximation and phasing, respectively) and implementing the chaos-driven changes with familiar tools. To put it crudely, we eat some stuff and we poop some stuff, but 95% of our bodies stay the same every day, slowly prog..., um, evolv...., um, uh, mutating.

So musical composition mutates in the hands of us individual organs of the socio-temporal body. Good enough. As composers, we form an environmental influence for mutation, like breeders, like pollinators, like honeybees in search of sweet blue blossoms.

First harvest of blue potatoes
Our first harvest of blue potatoes last night. So far, the woodchuck hasn't found them tasty. They are yum!

Back to the Blog Index
Back to the WAAM Page
Back to my Home Page
Please Write to Me
Previous Day | Next Day

WAAM Info Feed RSS feed for this site