Music, and the Naturalization of Plants and Animals

Dan Plonsey

August, 2001

Naturalization is the process by which animals and plants adapt to new, unprecedented conditions (whether by relocation, or by the changes which occur in time), as considered from a Lamarckian or Darwinian perspective, or yet, from the viewpoint of a musicologist, music theorist, or composer/performer.

``Whether new music invented new `open' forms or adapted old `closed' ones to new needs...'' (Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1959, entry for: Music), ``...the orchestra was dissociated [emphasis mine, stressing the action of dissociation, taken in response to the need to ``bring out the contrapuntal and linear nature of the music''] into sharply defined groups of colours...''

``Perhaps the most striking general aesthetic and technical feature of the [neo-classical] period was a new attitude toward stylization.''

Debussy. Satie, the champion of `` `objective' attitude.'' ``Around 1908 there was an outburst of musical primitivism and expressionism...''

Brittanica's draws parallels between musical and artistic history ``that paralleled the postimpressionist reaction in painting against the tenuous world of the impressionists'' which play one off against another, as the sort of competition fueling evolutionary change.

``For a while such stylistic relativism seemd to point toward complete anarchy.'' But anarchy was ultimately of limited expressive potential, though of tremendous personal appeal as a Romanticism of the most hopeless sort.

And in contrast to the anarchists, ``Walter Piston (1894-) and Roger Sessions (1896-) produced important and skilful works in this [neo-neo-classical] style. Shunning romantic attitudes, they regarded themselves as returning to the ideals of craftsmanship of earlier times.'' But with all due respect, their self-regarded ``return'' was just romanticism in another guise: theirs was a thoroughly romanticized re-invention of ``the ideals of craftsmanship.'' This particular historical self-delusion of the artist, in which he/she believes his/her artistic axioms to be grounded in a bedrock of past practices (as though there was a time at which art could be practised in a fully rational and even mechanically ``correct'' manner!) is especially noxious, inasmuch as it leads the artist to believe in a right and wrong way to produce art. And should that artist attain a position in which they have power over the production of other artists, then there will be an ineviatble imposition of a self-perpetuating hegemony of quickly deteriorating artistic value which may prove difficult to topple (consider the UC Berkeley music department).

This state of affairs is what Anthony Braxton identifies as the ``fallacy of idiomatic supremacy.'' In the shortest imaginable time it becomes a force for heartless self-interest, profoundly inartistic.

In contrast to those who would ``[return] to the ideals of craftsmanship of earlier times,'' we see a markedly different approach in the Plant and Animal Kingdoms: ``Thus, the normal development of particular characters, such as general growth and pigment formation has been `harmonised' for a definite environment.'' Harmony is that relationship which is between the development of particular characters (i.e., composition), and the environment. Now, the environment is understood to be in a constant state of flux, therefore the metaphor of harmony is appropriate so long as we think of harmony as also being a sequence of events in time, rather than as a fixed set of rules.

But might not the ``natural'' adaptation of composers to changing professional circumstances be in some sense immoral, unethical, or anti-artistic? And what of adaptation to changing performance possibilities? Might not the notion of neo-classicism be a result of moral resistance to the pressure to change with the times, regardless of the artistic truth? Only if there is a single artistic objective truth, and I believe that there isn't -- except as a summation of the totality of all the local truths of Earth: surely that is what we're here to experience and report upon? Surely our music is for an earthbound audience too, in addition to the unseen celestial one? Nevertheless, undoubtedly there is value to be had in at times resisting, and at other times anticipating, those changes to which we believe we will be required to adapt, as an indication of value we place in our individual will and perspective. And maybe in art the circumstances only appear to change (that is, are under political or commercial pressure to change), or maybe we make the occasional mountain out of a molehill -- yet, certainly spurious mountain-making is a typically grand artistic gesture. Still, there are questions we consider: how much do we play to the peculiar affections of the ears for particular sounds; how much do we respond to the issues of who is wining, and who losing the battles for artistic eminence; how closely do we identify with the kings and the fools?

Come on, pay attention; this is big stuff! How we stand may determine the fate of the planet. What we want is: peace with maximum bio-diversity. Are we willing to accept equivalent human diversity, especially diversity of thought? Including those regions of thought currently unthinkable, antithetical as they are to peace and mutual respect and love? What must society allow in order to accomodate that which I might regard as deviant, or anti-social, or psychopathic? Aren't there limits? Even upon those who believe in maximal suffering for the greatest possible number? Don't we only want to allow ourselves, our friends, and those individuals insane enough -- in their own universes so deeply as to be unable to conceive of let alone complete the smallest act of harm upon us -- while being perhaps amusing or at least novel -- the full freedoms? (Isn't this last category of artists the abstract expressionists: weren't they and aren't they still completely harmless?) But don't we encourage a music of the unreal? Do we respond more to reality or un-reality?

What we do not do is make an art of the display of picked flowers and fruits, because of such naturalization is impossible: while even a corpse may be said to adapt, there is no future for integration of that which is cut off from its community, its stem, its sun, its predators, and those which will re-integrate the corpse into the world. In a vase, the leaves hang from the stem uselessly; their function usurped, just another obligation for the stems...

...And whole hundred-million-year epochs go by that are more about the will of plants than animals...