Friday, October 23, 2009

The history of subjectivity

Part V of an occasional series.

In a series of posts over the life of this blog, I've attempted to come to grips with the way we write about music history, and why it's usually so awful. One is forced to choose between two versions of Whig historiography: one, slightly older, sees twelve-tone serialism as the apotheosis of musical development, while the other sees the New Tonality (always with capital letters) of Adams, del Tredici, Rochberg, Whitacre, and whoever else as being the logical continuation of the classical tradition. Both viewpoints, of course, besides being boring and useless, are unpleasantly doctrinaire. If the Old Whigs are correct, then all tonal composers are pitiable reactionaries; if the New Whigs are correct, then all atonal composition is a temporary historical aberration, a gruesome traffic accident at the side of the road. In reality, of course, hundreds of composers are at work at any given time, and future listeners will judge them by the quality of their work, not by how well they reflected a largely imagined Zeitgeist. In my most recent post, therefore, I proposed a metaphor of dynamic equilibrium: at any given time, hundreds of composers are at work, each with a unique musical language. Only from far away do the interactions of individual artists seem to coalesce into an identifiable pattern.

That's all very well and good, of course, and seemingly uncontroversial, but one could very well object that this approach negates the obvious differences between historical periods. Isn't music history something more than just the record of works produced by individual artists, interacting only with each other? If I am to avoid conceiving of music history as a wholly random process, irrelevant to the rest of the world, I find myself in need of a credible metanarrative. So I offer you the following history of Western music from the emergence of polyphony to the present, conceived as a process of subjectivization: whatever virtues it may or may not have, it at least avoids the usual fallacies of the Whig historians.

Stage One: The Catholic Church promulgates a metaphysical picture of an orderly universe, in which man has a relatively insignificant place; fallen from grace, he can reach his ultimate telos only by the grace of God. Aside from a few warning tremors (Ockham's nominalism and Scotus's voluntarism), this ideal seems stable. Music is conceived as an imitation of this heavenly order, giving audible form to its beauty. It is thus classed as a speculative science of sorts, and the writings of Pythagoras are used to determine a priori which intervals are "perfect" and which "imperfect." The sounds produced are thus concordant, but sounding nice is not really the point. Medieval polyphony.

Stage Two: Pico's Oration on the Dignity of Man inaugurates Christian humanism; the self-sufficiency and power of the individual over his destiny is asserted. The Reformation encourages individuals to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Music adopts the so-called contenance Angloise, admitting the "imperfect" intervals of thirds and sixths because they sound nice. Renaissance polyphony.

Stage Three: Pietism increases further the subjective focus of Christianity, emphasizing the individual's acts of personal devotion over the communal life of the Church. The formerly synthesized body of human knowledge begins to separate into a variety of component disciplines, most notably with the development of empirical science. The subjective focus of music is made explicit by Frescobaldi and Monteverdi, who advocate a new aesthetic of expressiveness, with the rules of polyphony subordinated to the desired affective character of the music. Goal-directed tonality replaces modality. The Baroque.

Stage Four: The Age of Reason; a fully-developed humanism elevates the intellectual faculty above all other human qualities, and cultivates a mythology of medieval obscurantism and anti-intellectualism. Rationalistic approaches to politics lead to bloody revolutions in France and America, the first of which aimed to immanentize the utopian vision of an egalitarian society through an upheaval in the social order. In music, the static binary, ternary or strophic forms of previous generations give way to the goal-directed sonata principle: themes are no longer merely "worked out", but must "develop." Classicism.

Stage Five: Technical progress leads to widespread economic prosperity; rural society gives way to urban life, farming to industry. Human strivings are ordered by the "American dream" or the "Protestant work ethic;" metaphysical consciousness survives, if at all, as a secondary concern. The rationalist, revolutionary strain in politics exemplified in Marx. The birth of nihilism as an explicit philosophical movement. The artist is encouraged to plumb the depths of his individual personality for material, particularly if he can dredge up something particularly grotesque; in return, he can expect to be fĂȘted as a hero, with the concert hall recast as a secular temple. This new subjectivity is represented in music by an increased chromaticism, by self-conscious nationalism, or by the imposition of programmes on unsuspecting instrumental works. Romanticism.

Stage Six: Technical progress has totally transformed society; science has been recast as the crowning glory of human endeavour. At the same time, this total freedom is seen by many as ambivalent at best, and the default state of mankind has become a sort of bored anomie, interrupted only by wars of unprecedented violence and savagery. Composers strip away the "restrictions" of conventional tonality or pulse, and cultivate a wide range of new styles. The Romantic cult of expression is maintained in the fetishization of originality, and in the Expressionist's fascination with the depths of the subconscious mind. In apparent contradiction, scientific positivism appears in music in the guise of serialism, nevertheless retaining the construct of composer-as-hero ("Who cares if you listen?").

Stage Seven: While technical progress continues unabated in the wake of the two world wars, the world loses faith in its ability to bring about real improvement in society. The idea that liberal democracy is capable of bringing about a fully just society is diagnosed as a secular eschaton, parasitic upon lingering Christian metaphysics. Social change is now pursued through non-democratic channels, beginning with the violent cultural revolution of the 1960s, which aimed to remove all remaining restrictions on individual behaviour. Epistemic relativism becomes the default philosophical position; European thinkers adopt an ontology of violence, in which the only true metaphysical reality is that of individuals with conflicting thought systems attempting to impose them upon each other. Composers adopt chance techniques (Cage), use repeating processes in lieu of traditional development (minimalism), or make more or less fatuous attempts to reconcile their literate tradition with the new pop music - turning completely on its head the Stage One picture of music as a representation of an external order.

Stage Eight: As yet hypothetical. The work of subjectivization seems more or less complete, with the metaphysical picture we began with turned completely upside down. The only hope for further development lies in a truly postmodern school of thought, one which offers a true critique of the philosophical premises in the previous seven stages. A first glimmer of Stage Eight can be seen, perhaps, in the work of theologians associated with Radical Orthodoxy, whose goal is precisely to offer a retrospective, diagnostic critique of modernity. Radical Orthodox theologian Catherine Pickstock, writing in the winter 2007 issue of Sacred Music, describes Messiaen's music (along with some works by Schnittke, Ustvolskaya, and James MacMillan) as adopting a truly "postmodern music" in this sense - not merely a reactionary critique of modernism, but a synthesis of the modernist impulse with premodern materials. In Messiaen we hear, arguably for the first time in centuries, a music that can credibly express the idea of eternity. The circle completes itself; everything old is new again.

What you read above is not complete. There are certainly omissions; there are undoubtedly some mistakes as well. Your comments welcome.

1 comment:

Karl Henning said...

A most engaging read . . . I mull before chiming in properly.