Monday Musings: Cataclysmic Events In The History Of Music

Posted on July 25, 2011

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The critic is absent.

Every so often in the history of music, something big happens. Beethoven comes along and suddenly everyone views artists (not just in music) in a new, heroic light. Punk explodes like a thermonuclear device, and suddenly popular music is a politicised site of struggle and revolution. Miles Davis releases Kind Of Blue and suddenly jazz harmony is revolutionised.

As you can imagine, if you read me regularly, I’m not about to take these events at face value: there’s a great deal of mythologising to be unpicked around these, and other, moments. However, it’s still worth taking the time to look at them, because they are important, even if only because they have been so valorized: their significance is a given, although their characteristics as widely described may be highly questionable. Rarely, if ever, are artistic discourses revolutionised: there are usually similar figures lurking in the historical shadow of the greats, who did the ground work which they synthesized, seemingly out of the air as later observers see it.

As ever, there’s no proper research behind anything I say, although I have read stuff that does spring from someone doing some actual work: I’m just mouthing off, and sketching the territory as it appears to me. And it seems to me that there are an awful lot of these cataclysmic events: far too many for the myth that ‘everything changed’ to even ring true. They all seem to have things in common as well, although they may be separated by great geographical, cultural or historical distances.

Cataclysms in music seem to come in four types: styles or movements; technologies; artists; and works. They’re all the same thing really, as I’ve said: myths. But myths need something to hang themselves off; I guess we need them because we need a simple, event based, causal model of historical change. The uncomfortable truth is that the human world is an unfeasibly complex web of interwoven discourses, too diverse for any single subject position, even a scholarly, scientific one, to comprehend them all. What we like is a selection of discrete, episodic narratives, and really that’s fine: if I’m honest, that’s probably how I digest stuff most of the time, but if I’m going to think about anything properly, and dare to grapple with that slipperiest chimera, the truth, I have take on the limitations of ‘commonsense’ thinking.

So what are the features of these events? Here’s a partial list, off the top of my head:

  • They initiate a new period of musical practice: the sequence of ‘big events’ defines music’s periodicity. Cheap samplers and sequencers usher in the era of electronic dance music; after Charlie Parker jazz musicians apply themselves to harmony, and the technique required to articulate it, in an entirely new way; after Fritz Kreisler ‘classical’ string players use continuous vibrato.
  • They mark the end of an old period. After Metallica the blues elements recede from mainstream heavy metal; after LPs arrive, 78 rpm playback equipment becomes obsolete and 78 discs themselves become virtually worthless; after folk rock, traditional instrumental folk becomes less purist, for example accepting the use of guitars.
  • Within their field (e.g. classical music, jazz, music distribution) they affect everyone: all practitioners have to take the changes on board, or they become dated (or revivalist). So after bebop even mainstream jazz is ‘modern’; after Stravinsky all composers in Western art music must become progressive and experimental, or consciously opposed to such tendencies.
  • Their influence spreads in all directions: they affect practice synchronically, as described above, but subsequent change is traceable to the cataclysm, and prior practice comes to be seen in its terms. Thus, after punk all popular music movements (certainly from rock ’n’ roll onwards) are seen as oppositional; after Beethoven we look back and see Romantic, individualist artists in Classical and Baroque professionals like Haydn or Bach; after Kind Of Blue the modal principle becomes apparent in bebop and late swing harmony.

Clearly these changes are real, for the most part: it’s the manner in which they come about that is most mythologised. It’s the way we think about musical practice that changes, and is projected back onto a convenient figure or symbol, located within or around the moment of change. The easy narrative is one of a series of decisive breaks, but I can’t think of a single such discontinuity. Music changes in tandem with the rest of culture, and apparent moments of cataclysm are, at best, paradigmatic horizons, the points beyond which we can no longer imagine ourselves into the old ways of thinking.

Beethoven came at the end of the Classical period, and presents many features that would be characteristic of the Romantic; in other words, he is a transitional figure. But because it is around him that Romantic notions of ‘artistic genius’ were crystallized, he is seen as embodying those ideas, spontaneously and suddenly. Digital music production and distribution have brought about a revolutionary transformation in the creative and commercial practices of music, but not out of a clear blue sky: we knew exactly what to do with these technologies because we’d had cassettes since the 1970s, and cheap, solid-state synths, effects etc. since the 1980s.

So when you next hear someone ask what the ‘next big thing’ will be, I hope you’ll respond critically. I don’t mean to suggest that all major events in musical history are the consequence of hindsight: clearly, in the mid seventies punk was a controversial, unforeseen and disruptive arrival, and for all that it may represent a nexus of ongoing discourses, it was still a shocking and radical novelty. However, just as the incredible global up-take of the phonograph was facilitated by the existence of distribution mechanisms for printed sheet music, so punk’s rapid spread and popularity owed much to its conformity to existing popular culture structures: it was certainly a radical, oppositional discourse, but it was also, right from its inception, a way of selling things. The way it has coloured our perception of previous events in popular music and style is no bad thing, though: it highlighted a set of possibilities in mass discourse that had been hitherto invisible, just as the myth of Beethoven may help us to understand the urge to innovate in earlier composers. My intention has been, not to sweep away all the simplifying structures that help us to understand change in music, but to point out their ideological nature; ideas are useful tools, but we can access their greatest potential only when we are aware of how they shape and define us.

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