Category Archives: creativity

Gesture Toward the Infinite

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The gradual decrease in volume toward silence, known as the fade-out, was once a ubiquitous part of popular music. One of the earliest fade-outs took place during a 1918 concert of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. The women’s choir sang in a room offstage for the concluding “Neptune” movement. As the piece neared its end, a door to the room was slowly closed. The contrivance was effective: the celestial chorus drifted into silence, conjuring the expansiveness of the cosmos and the remoteness of the gas giant—then thought to be the furthest planet from the Sun (an honor Neptune reclaimed in 2006 when Pluto was demoted to a “dwarf planet”).

A similarly “organic” fade-out is heard on an 1894 recording of the “Spirit of ’76,” during which a fife and drum band seem to get closer and then march away. The effect was achieved by carrying the phonograph toward and away from the sound’s source. With the advent of electrical recordings in the 1920s, engineers were able to decrease amplification, a process made easier with magnetic tape recordings beginning in the 1940s. The first pop hit to end with a fade was the R&B crossover song “Open the Door, Richard!” (1946), by saxophonist Jack McVea. The technique became commonplace between the 1950s and 80s. Each of Billboard’s top ten songs from 1985 ended with a fade-out.

The fade-out initially served a practical aim. In the 1940s and 50s, engineers often used the device to shorten songs that exceeded radio’s “three-minute rule,” or to fit them on one side of a vinyl single. The 1960s saw the fade-out as a creative avenue, especially in psychedelic and electronic music. The ending of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” (1968) fades over four minutes of repeated choruses. Other artists, like Stevie Wonder, used fade-outs to cut loose with ad-lib lyrics and extended jam sessions.

David Huron, an expert in music cognition, appreciates the fade-out as something beyond a practical solution or creative outlet. Commenting on Holst’s “Neptune” in his book, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, Huron notes: “With the fade-out, music manages to delay closure indefinitely. The ‘end’ is predictable, even though the music doesn’t ‘stop.’ The ‘stop’ gesture is replaced by a gesture toward the ‘infinite.’”

The fade-out, with its impression of unresolved infiniteness, fell out of favor during the 1990s. (The only recent hit featuring the device is Robin Thicke’s retro homage “Blurred Lines,” 2013.) Popular music historian William Weir connects the decline to the development of the Need for Closure Scale (1993) and psychology’s wider embrace of the concept of closure—a goal better achieved when a song concludes with a “cold ending.” Weir concedes that this explanation may be a stretch, pointing to the rise of iPods and DJs, which have created a “skip culture” (using songwriter/producer Itaal Shur’s term), where we are accustomed to skipping from song to song before they end. Why bother with the last few seconds if nobody ever hears them? Yet, even then, we experience a kind of infinity: the never-ending medley.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Between Past and Present

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In his little book on modern art, Art and the Question of Meaning, Catholic theologian Hans Küng draws parallels between certain theological and aesthetic positions. Ideological historicism is a theology/artistic preference centered on a specific past, as if God or art had found its one and only true form in some bygone era. This position elevates the old as “a model, something to be imitated, not merely evoked,” and sees subsequent developments as evidence of decline. Ideological futurism, on the other hand, seeks a vision of God/art freed from the shackles of the past. It embraces the latest theological/artistic expressions as the very best, as if every new insight or technique is, by virtue of its newness, a positive advancement. The golden age is perpetually in the future: “every revolt [is] itself a great renewal” and “a new beginning [has] to be made again and again at zero.”

Although Küng focuses on the intersection of theology and visual arts (specifically painting), his comments apply equally to music. There are longstanding ideological debates between musical preservationists and innovationists. We might place the collector who touts the eternal supremacy of ragtime records on the historicism end, and the indie rock connoisseur who constantly looks for undiscovered bands on the futurism end.

Küng finds flaws in both positions. Ideological historicism—whether in theology, visual arts, music, or anything else—betrays not only “creative weakness,” “intellectual impotence,” and “anemic scholasticism,” but also a paralyzing belief in humanity’s downward spiral. Ideological futurism maintains the false notion that a break from the past always results in something better, no matter how ephemeral it proves to be.

Küng locates the solution to both extremes in a realistic grounding in the present. We are, in his words, “finite, defective beings and yet beings of infinite expectation and yearning.” Expectation here is an awareness of what has come before: the theological/artistic conditions set by ages of evolving thought and creative endeavors. Yearning refers to what is yet to be: new creations that are consciously or unconsciously indebted to the past and present. For the theologian, artist, or musician occupying this humble balance, “the momentary impression will be important for his art, but will not become an ideology, will not become impressionism.”

Küng does not use “impressionism” in the sense of the French movement or other “in-the-moment” artistic methods. Rather, it is a belief in an unhistorical “eternal” present that denies any linkage with past or future. The remedy for such faulty ideological impressionism—as well as for ideological historicism and ideological futurism—is finding comfort in a nowness that thoughtfully balances a recognition of heritage with an openness to new possibilities.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

All is Medley

Jonathan L. Friedmann

A “megamix” consists of multiple song snippets played in rapid succession. Verses, choruses, and smaller sections form a unified chain, often supported by a steady backing beat. Megamixes come in three basic types: “album remixes,” a single track sampling songs on an album; “flashbacks,” comprising slabs of popular songs from a year or two; and “artist remixes,” stringing together song fragments from a career. These can be bootleg tributes or studio releases, as with promo mixes advertising an upcoming album. To some extent, cutting and pasting is a natural outgrowth of the post-modern digital age, where music belongs to consumers, and consumers function as (re)producers. Nevertheless, its roots are probably as old as music itself.

Before remix there was medley: a musical piece made from other musical pieces. The term first appeared in the fourteenth century, and originally applied to hand-to-hand combat—still idiomatically called “mixing it up.” The later musical meaning would have suited that medieval context, as folk, popular, and liturgical songs freely borrowed and rearranged motives and melodies from one another. In medieval Germany, common threads connected Minnesong (courtly love songs), Gassenhauer (street songs), and Gregorian chant. By the end of the eighteenth century, medley referred to a sequence of opera melodies. This sense carried into the modern usage, where medley—and its companion term, potpourri—signifies a patchwork of short songs or song-segments performed as a continuous piece.

As self-aware assemblages, modern mélanges differ from their organic predecessors. However, their organizing mechanism is hardly new. Melodies, whether modal or diatonic, improvised or pre-composed, rely upon sounds developed through reuse, reshaping, and repetition. This can be compared to language: just as we internalize vocabulary and grammatical rules from hearing and using existing sentences, so do musicians internalize musical rules from hearing and reapplying existing musical patterns. In this way, every melody is a medley, varying only in degree.

Of course, obvious mixing can attract criticism (and even lawsuits). Constant Lambert famously frowned upon such “pastiches.” He complained, “a composer with no sense of style and no creative urge can take medieval words, set them in the style of Bellini, add twentieth-century harmony, develop both in the sequential and formal manner of the eighteenth century, and finally score the whole thing for jazz band.”

Condemnation and exaggeration notwithstanding, Lambert’s illustration captures the music-making process. Music is fundamentally a generative art: its very status as music depends on its resemblance to other music. Regardless if the piece is a deliberate medley, hackneyed hodgepodge, organic amalgam, novel twist, or post-modern remix, it invariably absorbs, consolidates, reassembles, and builds upon prior music. Perhaps creativity, in the pure sense that Lambert meant it, depends more on the masking of influences than on their absence.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Hybridity

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

No culture is an island. The mirage of pure and “uncorrupted” languages, rituals, recipes, beliefs, and bloodlines evaporates on closer inspection. Human beings are genetically inclined toward interaction, cooperation, and mimicry. As big-brained social animals, we constantly absorb, transmit, and reconfigure concepts, behaviors, and technologies. The greater the contact, both within and between cultural groups, the greater the mixing, both culturally and biologically. Beneath the veneer of pristineness is an accumulation of elements, often with roots reaching beyond the scope of memory.

Such hybridity is a musical norm. Virtually everywhere and at every time, internal and external forces have accelerated or decelerated the pace of assimilating forms, styles, patterns, and instruments. Periods of heightened cross-cultural exposure, such as migrations and the Internet age, can both magnify hybridity and heighten the impulse for preservation. But, even when cultural walls are erected, influences inevitably seep through. Moreover, periods of intense hybridization are often followed by periods of stability, in which the new hybrids become “mainstreams” or “traditions.”

On an individual level, the process of musical creation is, almost by definition, an act of hybridization. Consciously and subconsciously, composers and performers mediate between diverse and sometimes divergent influences, intentions, methods, and emotions.

Intentional cross-cultural hybridity has a long history in the Euro-American classical tradition. For instance, Antonín Dvořák originally billed his New World Symphony (1893) as incorporating tunes from spirituals and Native American songs. He later clarified that the music contains “original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music” (emphasis mine). Either way, it is a hybrid. The same goes for composers like Bartók, Copland, and Shostakovich, who meld folk, folk-style, and popular sounds with orchestral techniques.

Perhaps less obvious today are the eclectic tendencies of J. S. Bach. Part of his genius was incorporating sounds from disparate sources: North Germany, South Germany, France, Italy, ecclesiastical chant, etc. Hubert Parry notes in his classic biography, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Story of the Development of a Great Personality (1909): “[I]t must be recognised that the principles of Italian art, in its broader and more substantial aspects, influenced [Bach] considerably; and in the first few years at Leipzig he endeavoured to accommodate his church cantatas to the prevailing taste in Leipzig.” Among other works, this yielded Cantata 174 (Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, 1729), which, like the earlier Brandenburg Concertos (1721), showcases Bach’s sophisticated take on Vivaldi’s formal and stylistic signatures.

The dissection of any music—folk, classical, pop, and otherwise—discloses similar eclecticism, varying in degree. These, too, can be self-conscious, like Afro-Cuban or jazz-rock, or masked, like American fiddle music and rock ‘n’ roll. Usually, the amalgamated sounds are not easily picked apart. The organic fusion of elements, whether musical, linguistic, culinary, biological, or otherwise, rarely reveals its seams.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Soul and Commerce

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of Esquire magazine published in 1945 (vol. 23) includes a razor-sharp quote from tenor saxophonist Greely Walton. Asked about the impact of money on artistry, Walton replied: “If he’s a musician at heart, good music gives by far the most personal satisfaction…But anyone who completely forgets what he’s doing, or does what he’s doing cheaply by selling out to sheer commercialism—such a musician is a nitwit and worthy of neither respect nor money.”

Walton’s was among the first printed references to “selling out” in the ugly sense of sacrificing integrity for financial gain. He was careful not to idealize the opposite extreme: the musician need not starve for her art. If authenticity and appeal are in alignment, then good music—in the moral sense—can bring riches. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who sang “Never for money/Always for love,” is a perfect example. Aesthetic-ethical problems arise when talented musicians surrender to the dark side of branding, marketing, and empty consumerism.

Critics bemoan the depletion of meaningful music in the “post-album” age of YouTube, digital downloads, and television competitions. The manufactured, market-driven sounds of pop music are incessant reminders of the dysfunctional relationship between corporate capitalism and the arts. This does not mean the talent pool is any drier than in periods past. However, the pressure to “sell out” is far greater than it was in Walton’s day, and continues to trend in the wrong direction. As a result, creativity is curtailed in favor of monotonous conformity.

One of the loudest critics of this apparent cultural degradation is Berklee College of Music professor William C. Banfield. He sees profit-obsession as a kiss of death: “death of quality, skills, value of human expression, individuality, creative innovation, and a lack of spirit-soul.” Instead of an expression of one’s innermost being, music becomes a superficial vehicle for pursuing material rewards.

Banfield draws a contrast between songs with enduring socio-cultural value (which can be financially successful) and the largely formulaic and vapid offerings of contemporary pop. He calls the first category “long-term cultural relevancy,” or expressive art that deeply affects and influences the lives of people. This would include folk-derived traditions, like spirituals and the blues, as well as “banner songs,” like the protest anthems of the 1960s. The second category is “market relevancy,” or the manufacturing of sounds and personalities for wide audiences. This is “music industry” in its most negative connotations.

Banfield is an unabashed scholar-activist, but his idealism is not unrealistic. As a working musician, he knows the importance of resonating with the marketplace. Balancing short-term and long-term relevance is a worthy goal. Yet, he argues, “the wrong people are at the table, and they drive the industry and make the bad decisions. It’s all a game of dollars and greed, which again is a disastrous formula for art.” The key, it seems, is to sell without selling out.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Between Reason and Monsters

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1799 Francisco Goya published “A Collection of Prints of Capricious Subjects.” The eighty etchings and aquatints, known as Los Caprichos (caprices, folios), criticized the “multitude of follies and blunders common in every civil society” and particularly in Goya’s native Spain: superstitions, arranged marriages, corrupt rulers, powerful clergy, etc. The forty-third print is among the artist’s most enduring images. Entitled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (“El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”), it shows an artist (possibly Goya himself) asleep at his drawing table. He is surrounded by bats, owls, and a wide-eyed lynx—ominous creatures in Spanish folklore. A mysterious figure lurks in the center, staring directly at the viewer.

On first impression, the illustration seems to be an endorsement of rational thought: when logic lies dormant, the world becomes demon-haunted (to paraphrase Carl Sagan). But this is only part of the meaning. A caption accompanying the print warns, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” Pure rationality and pure irrationality are both dangerous. Reason without emotion is too dull and heartless to adequately address basic human and societal needs. Emotion without reason gives rise to all sorts of prejudices and harmful fantasies. When held in harmonious balance, passion and intellect create life-affirming art.

Goya’s rejection of absolute rationalism marked a transition from the Enlightenment to early Romanticism. While not denying the value of science and social reforms, he reclaimed emotions as an authentic and positive force.

Romantics would further the cause, placing knowledge and wonder, history and mythology, order and spontaneity side by side. Their idealization of expression stirred them to especially grand appraisals of music, which E. T. A. Hoffmann called “the most romantic of all the arts—one might say the only purely romantic one.” This belief owes largely to the balance Goya advocated. In most of its incarnations, music is both quantifiable and unquantifiable. Its raw materials and construction are open to theoretical and scientific analysis, but its evocations are almost by definition non-rational. Most important, its expressiveness is born from its structure.

As a visual artist, Goya might have objected to the musical bias of many later Romantics. After all, the counter-requirements of heart and mind are found in every art form to a greater or lesser extent. At its best, art is a reminder of what makes us human: form and feelings, function and purpose, reason and emotion.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Songcraft

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The roots of popular music can be traced to eighteenth-century Britain. Publishing houses sought to entice customers with sheet music of the era’s catchiest tunes. In those pre-recording days, the reproduction of favorite songs was a do-it-yourself affair. The music industry has since exploded into a multi-billion dollar international business. “Popular music” is itself an economic term applied to commercially distributed songs with wide appeal. The term extends to multiple genres, making unifying characteristics difficult to identify. The most that can be said is that popular songs exhibit some degree of formulaic writing.

Sure, there are trailblazers and experimentalists who occasionally appear in the homogenous landscape of pop, but taking risks is usually bad for business. By definition, popular music has to be popularly successful, and doing so requires following patterns and upholding conventions. Oftentimes what separates one band or vocalist from the next is timbre—the distinctive quality of “the sound”—rather than the music itself.

The conservative nature of pop irks many critics and social theorists. Bill Martin denounces “today’s hits” for their “gushy sentimentality, purely formulaic songwriting, [and] thinly veiled and uninteresting plagiarism of hooks that worked before.” Theodor Adorno noted that a popular song must be familiar enough for people to accept it, catchy enough to sustain interest, and just different enough to be distinguished from other similar songs. This frustrated Adorno both as a devotee of the musical avant-garde and as a critic of capitalism. Not only was popular music incapable of producing anything new, but its conformity also pacified listeners into accepting the capitalist status quo.

Of course, popular music is not always as cookie-cutter as the harshest critics contend; but it is certainly consistent enough, musically and lyrically, to deserve that reputation. The question is whether this is a bad thing. From a user’s perspective, it obviously isn’t: “give the people what they want” is a worthy approach, both financially and socially. On a deeper level, complaints about unoriginality may be missing the point. Throughout history human cultures have celebrated aesthetic stability. There are centuries of repetition in every Peruvian rug and Alaskan totem pole. Emphasis on innovation is the exception, not the rule.

The guild system of medieval Europe is a good example. The workshops of stone makers, goldsmiths, and fresco painters were filled with masters, apprentices, and journeymen who diligently followed guild statutes. They worked as an anonymous collective, and their products were valued for adhering to set formulas. With the rise of Renaissance Humanism, individuals began seeking their own recognition. They became known as “artists,” while those who stayed in the guild were called “artisans.” This marked a separation between craft, where accurate copying is the highest aesthetic ideal, and art, where uniqueness is key.

Part of the issue when it comes to popular music is that the word “artist” is overused. Giving everyone the title of “recording artist” sets the bar too high, and understandably rubs some critics the wrong way. Perhaps it is better to think of pop musicians as craftspeople, and their music as songcraft.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.