Tag Archives: John Cage

Hard (Melodic) Cases Make Bad (Melodic) Law

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Hard cases make bad law.” This legal maxim cautions against seeking general principles in the extremes. A case that is hard, either because it is unusually complicated or emotionally loaded, occupies disputed territory outside of the uncontroversial center. General law is derived from average situations and common concerns; difficult cases neither fit within its parameters nor contribute to them. Similarly, aesthetic outsiders offer little to normative notions of art. Duchamp’s Fountain and Cage’s 4’33” might be fertile topics for discussion, but without a basic consensus about what constitutes art, they would simply be an out-of-place urinal and a prolonged awkward silence.

Philosophers of art often give undue attention to fringe examples and provocative excursions, as if the existence of rule breakers sends aesthetics into a whirlwind of subjectivity. Who is to say whether Piss Christ is any more or less magnificent than Venus de Milo? The absurdity of this question reiterates the importance of the artistic center and its values. There is, of course, room for divergent approaches and variegated judgments; but art is generally recognized as art. (Incidentally, the outsider pieces cited above—Fountain, 4’33” and Piss Christ—have each been accused of not being art.)

The extent to which artistic conceptions are natural is demonstrated by melody. Certain elements are present in almost every Western tonal melody, from Baroque to mariachi to soul to grunge. These include repeating devices (e.g., melodic intervals and rhythms), a range within an octave-and-a-half, conjunct motion with occasional leaps (steps and skips), gravity (ascension, climax and dissension), and harmonic movement resolving to the root. These and other components are conventional to the point of being intuitive: any spontaneously imagined tune will likely contain most or all of them. This does not mean that adventures are forbidden in mainstream melodies. Standard components can be periodically stretched, as long as the overall integrity of the melody remains intact.

“Hard cases” in the world of melody are those that actively disregard this musical intuition. Twelve-tone serialism is a prime example, with its lack of tonal center, tone rows (non-repetitive arrangement of the notes of the chromatic scale), and regulated obscuration of patterns. Such musical experiments are conscious departures from the norm: they take account of the conventional building blocks, and proceed to knock them over. As with peculiar litigations, they can be thought-provoking and foster debate; but their influence on melodic standards and recognition is minimal at best.

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

Radical Conventions

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Everything we accept as mainstream had a beginning somewhere in the past. It may have sprung from a single source or through gradual development. It may have appeared in dramatic fashion, parting abruptly from ideas, technologies, manners or artistry of the day. Or it may have come with a snail-paced shift in the zeitgeist. Whether or not we know from whence it came, what we now consider normal was not always so.

True, nothing is without precedent. Given the cause-and-effect nature of reality, no entity is absolutely divorced from what came before. There is continuity in the intellectual evolution of our species, even when advancements seem more like mutations than adaptations. And, with enough time and repetition, once-innovative or iconoclastic views can become prevailing norms. Mark Twain put it thus: “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them” (Notebook, 1898).

In the vast universe of music, the transition from radical to conventional transpires in various ways. Two will be examined here, as they seem to be the most common: the appropriation of “far-out” ideas by mainstream musicians, and the discovery of older elements in novel forms.

The first involves convention through indirect channels. A good example is John Cage, hailed as one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. Cage’s legacy is felt more in his ideals than his actual works, which incorporate indeterminacy, spontaneity, expanded use of instruments, and manipulation of electronic and recorded material. Because of his personality, creativity and the experimental ethos of his time, Cage’s name became household. But his music never caught on in a popular way. It was and will always remain in the impenetrable realm of avant-garde. Despite this, his conceptions seeped into the musical vernacular by way of Woody Guthrie, John Cale, Sonic Youth, Frank Zappa and Brian Eno, as well as the countless musicians they have inspired.

The second way radical music becomes conventional is through recognition of the past in envelope-pushing sounds. After the initial shock has worn off, new forms and styles are often reframed as unique syntheses of elements culled from a pool of established devices. This is perhaps most prevalent in the jazz community. The innovative playing of Charlie Parker has been reassessed as a fast-paced and intricate rendering of the blues. Eric Dolphy’s mold-breaking approach has been described as rhythmically similar to Parker’s, but more harmonically developed. The freeform technique of Ornette Coleman has been identified as a rephrasing of old swing patterns. These evaluations help pave the path to convention, where “outsider” sounds inform and are eventually fused with contemporary norms.

Most music is directly influenced by other music. Standards and trends do not arise in an instant or out of nothing, but through a subtle and organic flow that only becomes apparent with the passage of time. Drastic departures can also occur within this linear movement. As things progress, these too can become “normalized,” often through secondary influence or reappraisal. Thus, as Twain observed, the radical is made conservative.

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