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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Evolutionary Musicology

Friday, March 16, 2007

What connects the call of a chimp, Mozart's The Magic Flute, and early anthropological field recordings of South American tribal song? One answer, of course, is that they are all forms of communication; but, according to the lecture I attended on Monday night, they are also all items for enquiry by the developing sub-discipline of evolutionary musicology. So, in the case of the former, it is argued that music is a manifestation of communicative survival tactics in the wild. Mozart's Magic Flute, with its repeated refrains and its systematic drawing on previous works, can be seen as an example of memetics (memes being to culture what genes are to the biological body). And the tribal song demonstrates the importance of listening to audible culture in studying group behaviour, as well as simply observing it.

As with many uses of science in cultural analysis, I am never quite convinced that the science is not simply providing an elaborate gloss on what were already well-established critical modes of enquiry. For example, is it really revolutionary to suggest that Mozart drew on his antecedents in developing his later work; isn't the study of the influences in discrete packets labelled memes simply a nice terminological way of saying what we always knew intuitively?

The lecture went on to look at Wagner in relation to nineteenth century evolutionary thought, which saw him as the apogee of musical genius. Just as a human embryo goes through stages from the simple cell to the tadpole like to the mammalian to the humanoid, he was argued to have "recapitulated" the entire history of Western classical music, developing from the old something radically different and thus standing at the head of that evolving cultural tree. He was music's fittest survivor, the pinnacle of the incessantly upwards trajectory of the Western canon. As with the Mozart, I'm not sure - and neither was the lecturer - that the translation of scientific models as metaphors for a cultural condition does much more than rework existing value judgements. And, of course, in the case of Wagner and his exemplification by Nazism we see evidence of the deeper risks of asserting "scientifically" one cultural personality as unambiguously superior over others.

But whilst I was not particularly taken by the ideas in themselves, what interested me thinking about them in relation to literary studies was the fact that the idea of a "genius" still exists in musicology at all. As I commented in my post on Darwin, "Revolution or Evolution", the "great man" view of history which sees a genius as transcending the socio-economic conditions in which he or she lived is now discredited by most historians. But it seems that the idea that a man can single-handedly embody the entirety of Western music, can be elevated unambiguously to the top of its scale of achievement, still remains in music study.

Further, I was fascinated by the fact that music studies, or some branches of it, have this teleological model of music history, in which the move from plainsong to Bach to Mozart to Wagner is seen, retrospectively, as linear and upwards moving. In contrast, I am reading Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence at the moment, and his theory argues that literature (or poetry) works through a kind of anti-teleological drive. The new poet must strive to "swerve" from his ancestors, to break from them rather than building upon them. Thus the modern American poets are attempting to break from the Romantics; the Romantics were overawed by the influence of Milton; Milton can be traced back to the greatest poet of them all, Shakespeare. Whereas Wagner stands at the apex of music studies in the mid-nineteenth century, in the Bloomian model of literature it has been downhill all the way from Shakespeare in the sixteenth.

You don't have to agree with Bloom's argument, which relies on a slightly faddish Freudian model, to feel that this general idea of literature as a regression to origins is a fair one. All of us have heard some variant on the conversation: "Dickens was a great genius" and the deadening retort, "Yes, but he wasn't Shakespeare, was he." I suspect a similar parody might be found in art history, with the Renaissance artists the triumph against which all modern art, great though it may be, is indexed.

So what is it in music as an aesthetic and historical phenomena that has allowed this teleological, upwards trend to be brought into play, whereas in literature and the visual arts we observe the reverse? This is a broad question, and I don't have the expertise to answer it today. What I would suggest tentatively, though, is that it has something to do with the transience of musical performance, as opposed to the permanence of the Sistene chapel ceiling or of the First Folio. The latter artefacts have passed from their origins virtually unchanged; we read King Lear as Shakespeare wrote it, and as we read in a sense Shakespeare is as alive for us today as he was then. We know our classics in their physical form as being much the same as they were when they flowed off the pen or the paintbrush. In contrast, to hear Mozart's Magic Flute in a live performance is to be aware that he has passed, that this is a restaging of a work of history rather than a reliving of it; in contrast, for the nineteenth century audience to see a Wagner piece during his lifetime, was to hear something more perfectly of its moment. Wagner was the fittest survivor because, unlike Mozart, he still lived and breathed for the nineteenth-century audience. (In this frame, I would make a slightly flippant connection with cooking: we only ever talk about today's top chefs, and never about their ancestors from whom they necessarily inherited, because we cannot know them except through a different sense, through reading a recipe book rather than tasting the food. Likewise, to see a historical score of music does not provide the same immediate experience as to hear it.)

I would also suggest that music has a more limited set of structures, forms and instruments than literature. Because of this, when Wagner deploys his orchestra in a way that draws on or rejects the Beethoven symphonic method, it is clearer precisely how the tradition - call it the "memes" if you will - are being reworked in the later work. In contrast, where did this image in Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner come from:
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
It took John Livingston Lewes an entire chapter in his The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination to trace some of the possible ancestry of this vision in Coleridge's reading over previous decades. Even then, the links are tenuous at best, and Coleridge's creativity still seems somehow plucked from the air, as much as dredged up from the textual mud of tradition. The meme of "hoary flakes" resists being decoded.

I expect these comparisons and contrast have not passed unnoticed (and I may revisit Daniel Barenboim's 2006 Reith Lectures to get more clues). But it is something to think about nevertheless, as I start to think about research after my PhD.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:09 am


Anonymous Kitchen Witch said...

I love the Magic Flute. When I was little, my parents had a video of a Swedish performance shown on the Beeb once; I spent years wanting Papageno's gag, ironically; it was sort of filigree, I seem to recall.

Oh, and hello, by the way. :)

3:18 pm  

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