Monday, July 06, 2009

The Fermata

A discussion at between two philosophers with interests in environmental issues, Jay Odenbaugh and Craig Callender, raises some serious questions about conservation and even the re-introduction of extinct species.  A proposal to conserve or revive any particular species is a non-chronological privileging of one particular historical moment or era over others, establishing the particular constellation of climate, fauna and flora of one moment as a benchmark against which any other state is less valued. This is an enterprise which strikes me as ultimately rather arbitrary, however immediately attractive any particular configuration may appear.  (I find their example of a restored Cave Lion population roaming Los Angeles is an especially nice addition to the long tradition of destruction-of-L.A.-narratives (see Mike Davis's City of Quartz for several more)).

It occurs to me that, in the modern invention of the "classical" music repertoire, with the predominance of late 18th through early 2oth century western European music in that repertoire, that a similar experiment in privileging one era over others — including our present era — has, in fact, already been carried out.  While it is true, on the one hand, that there has been a steady admixture of new composition and historically-informed recreations of early repertoire nipping at the edge of the trunk repertoire as well as occasional tributaries to more distant traditions, and, on the other hand, one can recognize certain qualitative benchmarks in the classical style — among them in the variability and complexity of the tonal language, the flexibility of ensemble textures, and the relationship between notation, oral transmission, and individual interpretation — one can also readily imagine a musical world in which some other, perhaps very different, repertoire or slice through repertoires had gained a similar level of prestige, and that other slice would as certainly have its own set of qualities to recommend it (moreover, the qualitative benchmarks to one musician's or listener's tastes may well be heard as deficits by another musician or listener).  

AFAIC, the problem here is not in the choice of musics to be privileged but rather in the phenomena that one music can aquire such privilege — often institutional in nature, and sharing the material power of that association — to the disadvantage of other musics.  I certainly have my own preferences and distastes and I have no problem that you do, too.  (In fact, that's what I value most about you.)  But I do have real problems when the choice has essentially been made for both of us by prohibiting the successful cohabitation of a diversity of musical materials, methods, styles, and traditions through some artificial institutional constraints on musical practice.  Unlike the streets of L.A., in which a decision to allow coyotes and mountain lions — or even genetically re-engineered mamoths, sabre tooths or cave lions — will have inescapable and immediate consequences to life, limb, environment and economy, it is the inherent advantage of music that there are no neccessary disadvanges to the cohabitation of a diversity of musical forms.  

1 comment:

Adam Baratz said...

How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll sounds like it deals with similar questions as they relate to popular music... need to pick up a copy.