Category Archives: eclecticism


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.

We Sing a Body Eclectic

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Everything that we feel, consume or otherwise experience is really an accumulation of many things. At the microscopic level, all matter is composed of a variety of tiny units that combine in different and almost infinite ways. Combinations are also detectable at the macroscopic level. Take, for example, the clothing a person wears on a given day. Most of the time an outfit is pieced together from articles manufactured and distributed by different companies, acquired at different times and places, and sewn from a medley of fabrics and patterns. Similar mixtures are present in the food we eat, the gardens we plant, the cars we drive, the places we visit, the appliances we use, the words we speak. Purity simply does not exist in any strict definition of the term.

Yet the composite nature of everything is not usually obvious. This is primarily because of presentation. When soup arrives in a bowl or the pages of a book are flipped, we get the impression of singleness. A part of us realizes that soup is made of several ingredients and that books contain innumerable influences. But we gladly receive them in their entirety. The forest distracts us from the trees.

Unless we consciously direct ourselves to see, smell, taste, touch or hear the finer details and points of intersection, the whole is what we experience. Indeed, even when the diversity of components is obvious, we tend to receive them as if they were uniform. This is probably an evolutionary adaptation: it helps us organize and make sense of the complexities of reality.

Examples of this are found in the world of music. For instance, a songbook may consist of divergent offerings from varied songwriters, styles and time periods. But their inclusion in a single volume—printed in uniform fashion and on pages of identical shape, size and quality—obscures their origin and character. The same occurs when a performer gives a recital featuring sundry compositions. Because the same person is playing each selection, it is easy to lose track of the multiplicity—even when the music exhibits signatures of divergent schools. And there is the basic fact that each piece contains within it a blend of materials and inspirations.

One musical venue where assortment is especially hidden is the American synagogue. Like the country itself, American Judaism is an amalgam of people and practices from around the world. German-Jewish immigrants brought a tradition of choral hymns to American soil. Eastern European Jews introduced melismatic hazzanut. Twentieth-century composers like Ernest Bloch and Leonard Bernstein expanded the limits of synagogue song. The 1970s brought guitars into the synagogue walls. Songwriters dabbling in an array of styles, from Sufi chant to Brazilian pop, have contributed to Jewish worship. Not confined to a singular rite, most liberal congregations are free to construct a service drawing from eclectic styles.

However, because most synagogues have a steady staff of performers (e.g., a cantor, pianist and choir), and because musical settings are typically presented without introductions or program notes, the line demarcating one piece from the next is blurred. Widely heterogeneous music is presented in a more or less homogenous way. Again, this phenomenon is perfectly natural and clearly beneficial: it adds to a service’s sense of flow, consistency, comfort and stability. Our disinclination to detect variation preserves the illusion of oneness. In a world as complicated and overwhelming as our own, that is nothing to be ashamed of.

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

Lessons from the Ear

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In many circles and in much of contemporary discourse, dogmatism is held up as a paramount virtue. Consistency of belief, firmness of position and unwavering opinions, whether of a religious, political or other kind, are viewed as treasured and noble traits. Conversely, those who exhibit intellectual flexibility and openness to revision are thought untrustworthy or insincere. This attitude persists despite our being the inheritors of millennia of ideas, our knowledge of the swiftly changing world, and our awareness of the historical tragedies ideologies have wrought. It seems that no matter how antiquated or simplistic the mindset—and regardless of the quality or amount of contrary evidence—steadfastness and cocksureness are judged intrinsically virtuous.

Allegiance to narrow principles and provincial notions does have its benefits, not the least of which are a (false) reduction of life’s complexities, a sense of stability in an unstable world, a solid foundation for self-identity and a basis for group cohesion—unrealistic and un-nuanced though some of this may be. But the truly critical mind is never satisfied with this type of thinking, since it necessarily involves surrendering to inherited assumptions and accepting conclusions arrived at by a person or persons other than oneself. More importantly, the supposed nobility of ideological stubbornness conflicts with another, more compelling, virtue: learning from experience.

Situations, circumstances, observations, readings, reflections, interactions, trial and error, cause and effect and other processes offer the open mind ample opportunities for reevaluation. The challenge is to keep a portion of our slate blank enough to accept, adopt and adapt new information, and to be willing to dismiss cherished views when they are proven faulty or insufficient. To quote nineteenth-century ethicist Thomas Fowler, “intellectual honesty requires that, if need be, we should sacrifice our consistency and our favorite dogmas on the altar of truth.”

In spite of its current unpopularity, this approach is more practical than radical, and far more ancient than it might appear. Its roots are planted in Greece and Rome, where minds as celebrated as Posidonius, Cicero and Seneca conceded that no single system of thought was adequate for understanding reality. Instead, these philosophical eclectics drew upon multiple theories and methods to gain insights into a certain subject or decipher a certain scenario. They favored reason over elegance, constructing sometimes-messy worldviews from existing beliefs and their own ideas.

Their apparent inconstancy was as pragmatic as it is opposed to conventions of modern discourse. Yet even the current-day dogmatist tends to be eclectic in some ways. A case in point is musical listening. If we were to take an inventory of the music we enjoy (or have enjoyed in the past), we would likely be astonished by the variety and lack of unifying characteristics. Most of us draw musical selections from abundant sources and styles. Others have a disciplined relationship with music, limiting themselves to a certain period or genre of recordings. But even when the range is relatively small, there is still diversification enough to dispute dogmatism.

Added to this, the way we listen to a piece at any given time tends to vary. Our hearing is usually directed toward one or more specific dimensions, be it melody, orchestration, rhythmic pattern, tonal density, timbre, coloration, phrasing or something else. Whether this variation of perception is conscious or unconscious, the result is that we are always processing musical sounds differently. The heterogeneity of our listening habits rivals that of our musical choices.

Like the philosophical eclectic who un-rigidly searches for ideas best suited to address an inquiry, the listener seeks out music that best matches personal leanings and the situation at hand. And like the adherent of eclecticism, whose outlook and theoretical tools are receptive to reassessment and modification, our musical preferences are subject to change. If at any time we were presented with a thousand recordings representing far-flung styles, we would find some of them bearable, others unlistenable and select a few as favorites. The determining factor would be this: whether or not the music “works.”

Of course, there are ideological purists in every area of life, including music. They fancy themselves honorable conservationists, but are just as often stubborn fossilizers artificially removed from the evolving experience that is life. Musical purists are unable and unwilling to budge, even if there are practical reasons for doing so. Clinging is construed as righteousness.

But such purists, while adamant and often vociferous, are the musical minority. Most of us have eclectic ears: we are open to and excited about adding to our constantly adjusting playlists. We approach music not as dogmatists, but as experimenters whose views derive from exposure and analysis. Honest engagement in all aspects of life requires a similar level of open-mindedness. If only we would listen to our ears.

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