Saturday, August 28, 2010

How Ideas Come, Get Spent, And Go (And Sometimes Come Back Again)

I really like this list of ten lost technologies.  How do good ideas get forgotten? Often because they have been kept secret (typical in family-run enterprises or with military technologies, in which secrecy has a commercial or strategic value.)  Sometimes, however, good ideas wear out their usefulness and get replaced by alternatives.  There has been a great exchange on this process in economic theory among some prominent social science bloggers (here is a good place to start).  Among music scholars, ethnomusicologists have long been occupied with the process of theoretical change and the so-called new musicologists took up this theme in the '80s (and now, having become institutionalized itself, the new musicology is increasingly confronted with an offense by a more traditional musicology).  Curiously, it is in music theory proper (and its speculative counterpart, composition) that discussion of the patterns of theoretical change seems to be handled at greatest distance.  I suspect that this is, at least in part, due to some deep uncertainty about music theory's status as a theory (e.g. a theory of what, precisely?) and not simply description of compositional practice that lies behind this reticence,  but I may well be very wrong about this. 

In music, generally, there has been an accretion of ideas and techniques over time, making ever-more resources available to a composer and generally increasing the complexity of music produced.  Instrument builders, like those in the Stradivarius workshop mentioned in the article cited above, may keep their trade secrets close, but music itself is essentially "open source", so that musical techniques can usually be decoded and reproduced.   This is not, however, universally the case.  Clarino trumpet playing, for example, largely disappeared after the mid-18th century, and the virtuoso cornett technique disappeared even earlier, with both techniques returning, conjecturally and with mixed effect, in the early music "revival" of the later 20th century.  The subtleties of musical change are best demonstrated in the history of musical style.  Sometimes, stylistic change goes in the direction of simplifying one or more dimensions of music. Thus, some late fourteenth century music is, in some major parameters, more complex than the music which succeeded it, and similar phenomena can be found at several other junctions in music history.  In general, stylistic change is a mixed bag: post-serial musics, for example, may often be computationally less sophisticated than classical serial works, but they can be much richer in historical references and contextual associations.

Stylistic change in music seems to me, however, to be most tightly bound to the life of the institutions which cultivate and present music.  The change from chapel and court patronage to that of American universities and Western European radio stations is significant, as is the change from the live public concert or private music-making to broadcasts and recorded media.  These changes have contributed mightily to the continued liveliness and variety of music itself (indeed, they made the notion of a renewable music possible.)   In this context, it's been somewhat distressing to read the controversy over music in an age of digital technology which has been going on in the recent issues of MusikTexte.  The most distressing item in the exchange is a new article "Against the Deinstitutionalization of Music" by C.-S. Mahnkopf, who appears determined to become the Joseph Ratzinger of of new music in his defense and plea for the extension of the present, state-organized and financed music-institutional landscape in Germany.  Mahnkopf's ex cathedra statements about new music have been part of the background noise in German new music for some time, but this time the noise level has moved beyond  irritation to outright disturbance with his failure to recognize that large institutions inevitably support an ever-smaller variety of music and necessarily put long-tenured bureaucrats into positions of authority over the determination of which music gets made, where and when.  The central mission of such institutions inevitably becomes that of sustaining their own lives and accumulating control over any available resources.  Equally problematic is Mahnkopf's failure to recognize the importance of private initiatives and alternative institutions to music's liveliness, in that each are willing to risk failure in going forward and — like Phoenixes emerging from their own ashes — are better able to respond to the forces of both success and failure, to regroup, and to reinvent or reform themselves around the particular challenges of new musical ideas.  (One readily imagines that Mahnkopf's goal is to set himself up as a central arbitrator of new musical life in Germany, akin to Boulez in France a generation ago, with his inability to recognize that the strength in German post-war new music has largely been its decentralization, which contrasts positively with France's ultra-montane Boulez-led centrism, a definite signal of his intentions.) 

Mahnkopf complains that the discussion in on economic and not purely cultural terms, but we are, inescapably, going to have to talk about economics — at the very least in terms of revenue sources and the allocation of resources;  the notion that culture can exist in an economics-free vacuum, I will simply leave alone.  Mahnkopf further mistakenly confuses the path of deinstitutionalization with economic neo-liberalization, when what is in question is not a strict privatization of the arts, but rather a diversification of the portfolio in investments in the arts in an attempt to optimize the relationship of the arts to contemporary technologies, resources, and opportunities. 

While I would certainly like to see music, and new music in particular, the beneficiary of ever-greater state (and corporate and private) largesse,  that largesse should be spread as widely as possible.  I don't want it to come with any greater degree of state control and I don't believe that simply perpetuating the existing structures of commissioning, presenting and distributing new music in Germany or extending those structures to the rest of Europe, or indeed the entire planet, as Mahnkopf proposes, is a useful idea.  Large institutions can be extremely useful, even essential for making some works possible, and they should have a role in any future mixed economy of musical presentation, but they can also become less useful or even destructive and we shouldn't automatically assume that the end of any given institution, however large or venerable, is necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, no institution should be viewed as an all-purpose,  cookie cutter-model to be arbitrarily reproduced in each and every possible location. It's not hard to recognize that a great deal of the individual character of each institution and the liveliness of the work produced is due in large part to their particular location in geography as well as time.  (Case in point: the acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus pit are wonderful — if entirely an accident, due to Wagner's desire to make the hall absolutely dark — and it is absolutely possible to reproduce those acoustics in a new hall anywhere, but there is no reason in the world to do that. A reproduction would remove something special about Bayreuth and create something somewhere else that was not special at all!)



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