Tag Archives: Mark Twain

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.

Judge for Yourself

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“I don’t believe any of you have ever read Paradise Lost, and you don’t want to. That’s something that you just want to take on trust. It’s a classic . . . something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Mark Twain included this remark in a speech given at the Nineteenth Century Club in New York on November 20, 1900. His intent was not to shame modern readers for being disinterested in Milton’s retelling of Adam and Eve—an epic that expands excessively on the size and scope and simple text of the original. Instead, he meant to illustrate how fashion in literature changes with the times. Paradise Lost and other hard-to-digest relics are known more by name than by content, and remain on lists of classics because the experts make it so, not because the public demands it.

The further removed we are from the time and culture that produces a so-called classic, the less we rely on our own opinions and the more we go by scholarly consensus. If we were to read Paradise Lost, we might enjoy it or we might not; we might be enthralled or we might wonder what all the fuss is about. But its status is predetermined, and our view of it is irreversibly tainted. It is great whether we like it or not, and we tend to blame ourselves—not the book—if it fails to capture our interest. For that reason, it is often safer to trust a work’s pre-established classic-ness than to delve into it oneself.

Literary canons do, of course, serve practical purposes. If they did not exist, works like Paradise Lost would meet the same fate as “lesser” contributions of their day: extinction. Isolating a few works as “great” also helps keep track of history, since many more words are published than can be remembered or preserved. Furthermore, pantheons of greatness—whatever criteria they use—are valuable cultural inventories, cataloging how tastes and trends alter over time. These pragmatic considerations aside, there is something odd about accepting works as classics (or anything else) without actually experiencing them.

Art is made to be experienced. Whether it takes the form of literature, painting, music, theater, food, architecture or something else, art is not just the self-expression of its creator or even the creation itself. It also includes all that occurs when a person sees, touches, smells, tastes or hears it. In this sense, art is not complete (or even really art) unless and until it is interacted with.

In the moment of interaction, the work goes through a multilayered process of impulsive evaluation, informed by the experiencer’s background, education, affiliation, disposition, etc. This is how we decide if we like it, hate it, or feel something in between. And whatever we feel is open to debate with others and subject to revision within ourselves.

Getting back to Twain’s point, an artwork is most alive when it is fashionable (meaning current). Reactions are freely felt, opinions are freely expressed, merits and demerits are freely discussed. By the time the experts give their appraisals, it is almost too late for us to have a pure response. This is especially so when the art in question is decades or centuries old. But the process is even skewed when critics review recent albums, movies, gallery shows and the like. The work is handed to us with a label, which we either accept or weigh against our feelings. But at least we have our own experience to draw from.

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

The Universal Non-Universal Language

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A basic premise of ethnomusicological investigation is that music, as a worldwide phenomenon, cannot be subjected to an overarching set of values, standards or expectations. No single conception of what constitutes music is applicable cross-culturally; a definition that satisfies Western principles fails when applied to a non–Western society. Thus, it is argued, each cultural and subcultural manifestation of music should be studied individually and on its own terms. To paraphrase George Herzog, music is a non-universal language that exists in many dialects.

As obvious as this may seem, there was a time, not too long ago, when scholars presumed that music in its varied forms communicated basic emotional information that could be discerned by insiders and outsiders in essentially the same way. But the more they examined the diverse offerings of local music-cultures, the more they came to appreciate the multifariousness of musical expression and the role of social conditioning in shaping musical perception. Like spoken languages, musical languages require a level of fluency to be understood.

Still, a version of the old assumption of universality can be upheld. Our reactions to music may not be uniform, but the types of reactions that music stirs are consistent throughout our species. In other words, while it is unlikely that a song indigenous to one group will evoke the same feelings when played for another, outsiders can at least appreciate the kinds of responses it produces in its native setting. The emotions of a sad or happy song may not resonate beyond a fluency group, but every group has its sad and happy songs.

In this sense, we are all empathetic when it comes to music (except, perhaps, for the roughly four percent who have some form of amusia, which hinders or prevents musical processing). We know emotionally what another experiences in music; we can place ourselves in their musical shoes. Of course, the degree to which music moves us varies from person to person, and shades of response tend to be more sophisticated among musicians. But regardless of how prone we are to emotional outpourings or how developed our musical skills, neurologically intact individuals are born musically sensitive and are predisposed to feeling music as emotion.

We can, then, empathize with another’s musical experience irrespective if we feel the music in the same way or with the same level of interest or intensity. Mark Twain, in his characteristically perceptive autobiography, explained why this is so: “The last quarter century of my life has been pretty constantly and faithfully devoted to the study of the human race—that is to say, the study of myself, for in my individual person I am the entire human race compacted together. I have found that there is no ingredient of the race which I do not possess in either a small way or a large way. When it is small, as compared with the same ingredient in somebody else, there is still enough of it for all the purposes of examination. In my contacts with the species I find no one who possesses a quality which I do not myself possess.”

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