Are we running out of new music/movies/art from a metaphysical perspective?

post by stephen_s · 2017-02-05T17:49:48.860Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 111 comments
It is difficult to judge at first, but it appears that some music genres (classical and jazz especially) have seen a radically slowed or non-existent output of significant works in recent decades. By significant, I mean works that would be seen in league with the most acclaimed artists in the genre (eg Beethoven, John Coltrane). In a similar way, there is a building popular consensus that Hollywood is not pursuing original ideas as much anymore and is relying on rebooting old stories and franchises. But is this because of a fault of the Hollywood system, or is it because there are few significant movie story ideas left that have not been done?

It seems to me that there are limited possibilities in art (or any field) of what we can discover or create. It appears that the matter and rules of the universe (in concert with human nature) manifests itself into these limited possibilities. When we develop a field or genre, we learn and create at an increasing rate but then eventually "complete" the field (in a boom and bust pattern).

I wrote a brief article called The Big Niche to try and explain this concept.

The relevant questions seem to be:
  1. Do you agree that from experience and observation, we can tell that certain genres or fields appear to become completed?
  2. Does this concept or another concept best explain what is happening?

I'm interested if any of you agree with this line of thinking or have other possible explanations of this phenomena.

111 comments

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comment by komponisto · 2017-02-07T09:44:41.296Z · score: 4 (5 votes) · LW · GW

It is difficult to judge at first, but it appears that some music genres (classical and jazz especially) have seen a radically slowed or non-existent output of significant works in recent decades

With all due respect, how would you know? Most people are so thoroughly ignorant of music that they can't possibly be expected to take notice of significant new works. (This is a general problem in many domains.)

As far as I can tell, the phenomenon you're noticing is simply that mass culture is not a process that optimizes for artistic value. But why should anyone have expected it to be?

The only reason that e.g. Beethoven has the mass-cultural prestige that he does is because he was grandfathered in at the beginning of mass culture, when it was seeded by elite culture. But mass culture eventually developed its own products, which have gradually displaced and eroded the prestige of the original "starters' kit" that included Beethoven.

Luckily, technology has made it possible to avoid relying on mass culture for access to culture. Beethoven may not be on TV but he is on YouTube, in abundance. (The name "YouTube" takes on some appropriate significance in this context.)

But people won't be able to properly enjoy this state of affairs unless they recognize that mass culture isn't a process for producing what they actually want (i.e. stop caring that Beethoven isn't on TV, when he is on YouTube).

All this is by way of explaining that, while you say "there's no one like Beethoven around", the idea that even Beethoven is "around" (present in mass culture) is mostly an illusion; and that a fortiori, you would not expect mass culture to have "noticed" his successors.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-07T16:22:16.586Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, the position I'm coming from is that there is a varied and subjective experience of music, but there is clearly a shared consensus of what is good. That we all share common characteristics of auditory and musical experience because we are all human--not that we all experience music the same way or have the same appreciation of individual songs, but that our experience of music has similarities due to our shared human nature.

So if I hit random piano keys with my hands a few times and call it a song, the consensus of music listeners would be that Beethoven's Fur Elise is a better song. I'm saying that it seems evident to me that there is something objectively different about those two "songs" that in tandem with human nature makes Fur Elise appeal as the better song to the general consensus of human music listeners. (of course outliers could enjoy my random chords more).

So where we might be conflicting, is that I see something objective behind what makes a "good" song by the consensus of human nature. I agree that there are many cultural factors at play as to what is popular according to mass culture. But if song quality is related to something objective, and the general consensus is that the best classical artists are from over 50-100 years ago, why would the rate of "great" classical songs have declined while there is as much or more opportunity to compose classical music as ever? Through the internet, we also have the quickest dissemination of music ever (so it seems unlikely that classical music fans would be unaware of current composers who are performing as great of works as Beethoven or Mozart).

More simply, I'm viewing songs as concepts. So like "you can't reinvent the wheel", you can't reinvent Fur Elise. So it's not that there are not skilled composers currently, but that there is very few remaining concepts (songs) for them to invent. Just like you could reinvent the lightbulb, but you wouldn't get acclaim for that because Thomas Edison already did that.

I agree with you that this is a difficult idea to prove, because what I am claiming are self-evident propositions--upon examination--are very complex. But I done't see a way to break the observation down further into simpler if/then arguments.

comment by Han · 2017-02-07T16:48:34.511Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think two of your premises aren't necessarily true:

So if I hit random piano keys with my hands a few times and call it a song, the consensus of music listeners would be that Beethoven's Fur Elise is a better song.

Probably, but I think your example is a little bit too extreme to demonstrate your point. There are a lot of genres, like taarab, that won't sound like good music to you because of your cultural background. Acid house probably wouldn't sound good to people who were raised in the 1800s, either. There are commonalities between how people appreciate music, but people come up with new ways to introduce musicality to a piece really often, which means that it's hard to enumerate all the songs there could be.

If atonal or microtonal music suddenly got trendy, you'd come up with all kinds of new tone patterns we didn't have before. If people started thinking about timbre differently, we could come up with instruments we don't know how to listen to now. Both of these things happened after the first synthesizers came out. I don't think you can predict in advance what will make people think "this sounds good."

the general consensus is that the best classical artists are from over 50-100 years ago

The great classical artists of the time of Debussy and Ravel were musicians like Chopin and Beethoven. The great classical artists of the time of Stravinsky and Schoenberg were musicians like Debussy and Ravel. Reich and Glass had Stravinsky and Schoenberg. (and maybe Gershwin), and now we're venerating Reich and Glass. Arvo Part is probably going to get canonized real soon now.

I think that when you're talking about "classical music" you're talking about music that most people are only exposed to in curated form. It seems like when that happens, curators stick to examples that are really broadly accessible, which isn't a good way to get a picture of the whole genre. The last trends of really broadly accessible music were 1800s romanticism and 1960s minimalism, and 1960s minimalism doesn't seem old enough for curators to put it on the classical music shelf.

It's not like painting ended with Da Vinci, but today's public doesn't particularly like Liechtenstein, Warhol, Rothko, Picasso, and so on.

This doesn't undermine your point, but I think you might want to investigate modern concert music a little more before you make some of these assertions.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-07T18:26:44.406Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't mean to press you on a point, but when you say in reference to musical consensus, "Probably, but I think your example is a little bit too extreme to demonstrate your point", I think it is important to say whether you believe there is any musical consensus of what is good, or if you believe there is zero consensus. The degree does not matter as to whether the point I'm trying to make is true. Is there any consensus based on how shared human nature interacts with physical sounds as to what is agreed upon as "good"? It seems difficult to argue that any consensus is completely arbitrary.

Also, I'm not saying that there is not infinite gradation of sounds or instrumentation, but there is a limit to the distinctness of sounds or instrumentation. Do you believe there are infinite distinct sounds or instruments possible? There isn't clear language for what I'm trying to get at, but think about how a violin is more distinct from a tuba than from a cello. Or think of it in terms of being similar to the visual spectrum of light: there are infinite gradations of color, but there isn't infinite distinctness. There are limits to the range of the visible spectrum of light, with the primary colors being most distinct from each other (but there is an infinite amount of gradation that can be categorized as sub-colors).

The point being that if there is an objective aspect as to what human nature appreciates as a song, and there is a limit to the distinctness of sounds (and other factors like rhythm, song structure etc), then there would be a limit to possible songs and a limit to possible songs that would be considered "good" by the general consensus (which I agree with you is very varied, but it is still non-arbitrary).

I think you are right to bring in painting or other forms of art to the discussion. What I'm really trying to do is explain a phenomena that I've observed in multiple forms of art. There is a pattern that appears to be taking place, that humans start out with very primitive forms of visual or auditory art, and then develop techniques and understanding to increase in complexity and open up new possibilities in art (like you refer to in your first couple paragraphs), but then the speed of development of more distinct works seems to slow down at a certain point and eventually decline. I agree that this observation is difficult to judge, but do you agree that there is a limit to distinctness? On a long enough timescale, (for example) wouldn't all classical music sound like a song that has already come before?

I appreciate the back and forth and your arguments.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-07T21:59:35.053Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Also, I'm not saying that there is not infinite gradation of sounds or instrumentation, but there is a limit to the distinctness of sounds or instrumentation. Do you believe there are infinite distinct sounds or instruments possible?

This whole idea that you need "infinite variation", or rather arbitrarily large variation, if artistic endeavors are to be worthwhile in the near term is just weird to me. A big enough space is plenty enough to keep us all busy for the foreseeable future, and this isn't even accounting for the fact that art is in no small part about gaining a thorough understanding of such creative possibilities, as opposed to developing new 'creations' persay. After all, there's already more music in the world than one could feasibly listen to in a lifetime!

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-08T10:32:43.754Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

art is in no small part about gaining a thorough understanding of such creative possibilities, as opposed to developing new 'creations' persay

This is very true.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-07T22:29:04.258Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, I didn't mean to imply that art is just about new creations. There are many other values to art and creativity of course. Also, I agree that we are fortunate to have an abundance of music available. So don't take what I'm saying as a criticism of creativity or art, or not appreciating the value of them apart from newness. I'm more examining this topic in the interest of understanding human progress and discovery in general.

I agree that this idea is difficult to prove as of now, which is why I'm doing my best to explain my thought process as to what seems evident to me, and I'm appreciating the objections that others are raising. But if we get to the year 2200 and the majority of people still listen to music primarily from 1500-2050 (or whatever), then that does say something about our reality and human progress/discovery. It also is interesting to me that people intuitively view creativity as something open-ended and undefined (at least I did until a few years ago), when perhaps there is something objective and defined and limited about human discovery (which I now believe).

comment by Han · 2017-02-07T20:54:55.759Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I really like your thread: thank you for writing me back!

I think you have good intuitions about how sound works. I don't think I can determine whether there's a consensus on what is good: I'd venture to guess that any audio humans can perceive sounds good to someone. A friend of mine sent me an album that was entirely industrial shrieking.

But I agree with you that there's a limit to the distinctness -- humans can only divide the frequency spectrum a certain number of times before they can't hear gradation any more, they can only slice the time domain to a certain extent before they can't hear transitions any more, and you can only slice the loudness domain to a certain extent before you can't hear the difference between slightly louder and slightly quieter.

We can make basically any human-perceivable sound by sampling at 32 bits in 44.1khz. Many of those sounds won't be interesting and they'll sound the same as other sounds, of course. But if nothing else, that puts an upper limit on how much variation you can have. In ten minutes, at 32 bits, in 44.1khz, you have about 840MB of audio data. You could probably express any human-perceivable song in 840MB, and in practice, using psychoacoustic compression like MP3, it would take a lot less space to do the interesting ones.

I think that for us to run out of music, the domain of things that sound good has to be pretty small. Humans probably haven't produced more than a billion pieces of music, but if we pretend all music is monophonic, that there are four possible note lengths, and twelve possible pitches (note: each of these assumptions is too small, based on what we hear in real music), then you only need to string six notes together before you get something that nobody has probably tried.

What I was really responding to were these ideas that I thought were implicit in what you were saying (but I don't think you thought they were implicit):

  • if you try every human-perceptible sound, most of them will sound bad. (we don't know if they'll sound bad because there's a ton of variation in what sounds good)

  • if you try every human-perceptible sound, most of them won't be distinguishable. (The search space is so big that it doesn't matter if 99.99% of them aren't distinguishable. We don't know, in general, what makes music ideas distinguishable, so we don't know how big that is as a portion of the search space. If you think that this comes down to Complex Brain Things, which I imagine most composers do, then figuring out what makes them distinguishable might reduce to SAT. see all the things neural network researchers hate doing)

  • we are good enough at searching for combinations that we have probably tried all the ones that sound good. (there are so many combinations that exhaustively searching for them would take forever. If the problem reduces to SAT, we can't do that much better than exhaustively searching them)

I think that some of the strategies we use to search for musical ideas without having to solve any NP-complete problems have dried up. Minimalism is one technique we used to generate music ideas for a while, and it was easy enough to execute that a lot of people generated good songs very fast. But it only lasted about a decade before composers in that genre brought in elements of other genres to fight the staleness.

After a couple hundred years, Bach-type chorales have dried up. (even though other kinds of medieval polyphony haven't) The well of 1950s-style pop chord progressions appears to have dried up, but the orchestration style doesn't seem to have. (If we think "nothing new under the sun" comes down to Complex Brain Things, then we can't know for sure-- we can just guess by looking around and figuring out if people are having trouble being creative in them.) A lot of conventional classical genres don't appear to have dried up -- new composers release surprising pieces in them all the time. (see e.g. Romantic-style piano. Google even did some really cool work in computer-generating original pieces that sound like that.)

When these search strategies die, a lot of composers are good at coming up with new search strategies for good songs. We don't know exactly how they do that, but modern pop music contains a lot of variation that's yet to filter into concert music, and my gut tells me that means the future is pretty bright.

Thanks!

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-07T23:29:45.667Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, you are getting into the heart of what I'm trying to examine. This concept began to form for me as I was writing and recording rock songs and trying to create a distinct sound within that genre. New distinct music is largely created intuitively by people borrowing on the past but adding variation (like you said). But songs contain a more specific balance of factors than I think people realize, which makes a song more like a complex puzzle than just a complex combination of attributes. Many factors must sync together correctly including chord progression, melody, key, rhythm, vocal style, instrumentation, and audio production. But those factors are all limited in their distinctness (limited notes on a scale, limited chords, limited instruments, limited vocal styles). And for a song to work well, all the factors must sync correctly. If you put Elvis' voice instead of Kurt Cobain's on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", it might be funny but it wouldn't work as well. Kurt sings more like Paul Westerberg of the Replacements (listen to "Bastards of Young"), which is a specific distinct vocal style that they share (which works well for a certain type of style only).

So if you have 1000 (to be simple) vocal styles, 1000 chord progressions, 1000 combinations of instruments,....etc, it's not that each specific vocal style could be paired with each chord progression and with each combination of instruments, etc. In fact, it would be only very specific combinations that would work well. So, the songs that work seem to be extremely sparse within the search space.

Along the same line, if you look at rock bands, they usually have a period of 5-20 years where they produce their best work. It seems to be that they run out of good songs (the possible puzzle combinations of factors within their own style). A band like AC/DC recorded their best songs in the 70s and 80s, and then most of what they released after that just sounded like them repeating their sound but with diminishing results. If there really was a lot of untapped songs within a band's style, it seems like there would be at least a few counter examples of bands who produce the same high level of quality for 30 or 40 or 50 years, but I've never seen that happen.

And once you run out of new distinct factors (voice styles, or production styles, or instrumentation) then it seems like the potential for new distinct songs (as complex puzzles of those factors) also will run out. We have moved through genres over time, including better production in the last 20 years and more electronic aspects etc, but when will the well run dry?

It seems to me that with art (including music), we start with primitive attempts and instruments, but then we develop more complex music theory and new instruments, but then eventually we run out of new and our output will decline. While I was working on writing rock songs, I was noticing at the same time that bands I liked seemed to have declining quality of output, and there weren't new bands in different styles but of equal quality releasing music to fill the void. The rate of creation of new and quality rock songs and styles seemed to be in decline. I don't see there being a different method to unlock many other great songs or new styles than the intuitive method and trial-and-error that has been used for centuries; I think the well is just dry.

Anyway, the idea itself is interesting to me because if this concept applies to music then it seems like it would apply to all things involving creativity and discovery. That we can view all knowledge and creation as one thing (The Big Niche) that exists apart from whether possibilities have been created or not, and that it will all eventually be completed at some point in the future.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-07T22:09:40.910Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(see e.g. Romantic-style piano. Google even did some really cool work in computer-generating original pieces that sound like that.)

The best results in computer-generated romantic piano music are actually not from Google but from an unaffiliated researcher - see Composing music with recurrent neural networks. It's true that Google Brain has released some generated piano sounds from their WaveNet, but those (1) are not actual piano sounds, rather they're the network's "dream" of what a piano might sound like; a real piano could never sound like that; also (2) these samples have comparatively little long-term structure, as a natural outcome of working on audio data as opposed to notated music.

These results are actually the reason I don't buy that "strategies we use to search for musical ideas without having to solve any NP-complete problems have dried up". Neural net inference doesn't do any NP problem search, and this network creates rather innovative music simply by virtue of successful generalization, enabled by some very good (I'd even say outstanding) features of the model design.

comment by gjm · 2017-02-10T13:51:44.443Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That music doesn't sound "rather innovative" to me. It sounds stereotyped, boring, and inept. (For the avoidance of doubt, it is also very impressive to make a computer generate music that isn't a lot more stereotyped, boring and inept than that, and I would not be astonished to see this approach yielding markedly better music in the future.) It seems to me like it falls a long way short of, e.g., the music of "Emily Howell".

comment by bogus · 2017-02-10T20:40:09.806Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That music doesn't sound "rather innovative" to me.

Hmm. What sort of music are you most familiar with/like the most? The system does have some very significant shortcomings, which may account for why you find the output boring - however, I think it also has quite a few strong points. It's just hard to point them out here, since I'm not sure what your musical background is, or how much you know already about the formal/scholarly theory of music.

comment by gjm · 2017-02-11T00:45:06.553Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What sort of music are you most familiar with/like the most?

Western art music (i.e., the sort commonly described as "classical").

how much you know already about the formal/scholarly theory of music.

I know a diminished seventh from a minor third and a ritornello from a ritenuto, I can tell you which bit of a classical sonata-form movement is the exposition, and I have a tolerable understanding of the relationship between timbre and tuning systems. But I couldn't enumerate the different species of counterpoint, express any useful opinions about the relative merits of two serialist works, or write you a convincing musical analysis of "Yesterday". If that (either explicitly or via what I didn't think of mentioning) doesn't tell you what you want to know, feel free to ask more specific questions.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-11T03:05:52.365Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Western art music (i.e., the sort commonly described as "classical").

Well, first of all, note that the music that system generates is entirely derived from the model's understanding of a dataset/repertoire of "Western art music". (Do you have any specific preferences about style/period too? That would be useful to know!)

For a start, note that you should not expect the system to capture any structure beyond the phrase level - since it's trained from snippets which are a mere 8 bars long, the average history seen in training is just four bars. Within that limited scope, however, the model reaches quite impressive results.
Next, one should know that every note in the pieces is generated by the exact same rules: the original model has no notion of "bass" or "lead", nor does it generate 'chords' and then voice them in a later step. It's entirely contrapuntal, albeit in the "keyboard" sort of counterpoint which does not organize the music as a fixed ensemble of 'voices' or 'lines'.
Somewhat more interestingly, the network architecture implies nothing whatsoever about such notions as "diatonicism" or "tonality": Every hint of these things you hear in the music is a result of what the model has learned. Moreover, there's basically no pre-existing notion that pieces should "stay within the same key" except when they're "modulating" towards some other area: what the system does is freely driven by what the music itself has been implying about e.g. "key" and "scale degrees", as best judged by the model. If the previous key no longer fits at any given point, this can cue a 'modulation'. In a way, this means that the model is actually generating "freely atonal" music along "tonal" lines!

In my opinion, the most impressive parts are the transitions from one "musical idea" to the "next", which would surely be described as "admirably flowing" and "lyrical" if similarly-clean transitions were found in a real piece of music. The same goes for the free "modulations" and changes in "key": the underlying 'force' that made the system modulate can often be heard musically, and this also makes for a sense of lyricism combined with remote harmonic relationships that's quite reminiscent of "harmonically-innovative" music from, say, the late 19th c. (Note that, by and large, this late-romantic music was not in the dataset! It's simply an 'emergent' feature of what the model is doing.).

Something that I had not heard in previous music is this model's eclecticism in style ("classical" vs. "romantic", with a pinch of "impressionist" added at the last minute) and texture. Even more interesting than the clean transitions involving these elements, there is quite a bit of "creative" generalization arising from the fact that all of these styles were encompassed in the same model. So, we sometimes hear some more-or-less 'classical' elements thrown in a very 'romantic' spot, or vice versa, or music that sounds intermediate between the two.
Finally, the very fact that this model is improvising classical music is worth noting persay. We know that improvisation has historically been a major part of the art-music tradition, and the output of such a system can at least give us some hint of what sort of 'improvisation' can even be musically feasible within that tradition, even after the practice itself has disappeared.

comment by Han · 2017-02-08T06:35:23.720Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, thanks for the link!

I think you misunderstood me, or maybe I wasn't clear. I meant "of the strategies which we used to search for musical ideas, none of them involved solving NP-complete problems, and some of them have dried up." I think what neural nets do to learn about music are pretty close to what humans do -- once a learning tool finds a local minimum, it keeps attacking that local minimum until it refines it into something neat. I think a lot of strategies to produce music work like that.

I definitely don't think most humans intentionally sit down and try to solve NP-complete problems when they write music, and I don't think humans should do that either.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-09T13:12:04.845Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, what this network does is a lot closer to pure improvisation than the process of successive refinement you're describing here. Optimization i.e. (search for a local minimum) is used in the training stage, where the network uses a trial-and-error strategy to fit a model of "how music goes". Once the model is fitted however, generating new pieces is a process of linear prediction, based on what the model has 'written' so far - this is actually among the most significant limitations of these models; they're great for pure inspiration, but they'll never reach a local optimum or successfully negotiate broader constraints other than by pure chance. That's why I find it significant that what they come up with is nonetheless innovative and compelling. (There are of course neural-network-based systems that can do a lot more - such as AlphaGo - but I don't know of anyone using these to make new music.)

comment by Han · 2017-02-10T22:43:19.603Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, absolutely! It's misleading for me to talk about it like this because there's a couple of different workflows:

  • train for a while to understand existing data. then optimize for a long time to try to impress the activation layer that konws the most about what the data means. (AlphaGo's evaluation network, Deep Dream) Under this process you spend a long time optimizing for one thing (network's ability to recognize) and then a long time optimizing for another thing (how much the network likes your current input)
  • train a neural network to minimize a loss function based on another neural network's evaluation, then sample its output. (DCGAN) Under this process you spend a long time optimizing for one thing (the neural network's loss function) but a short time sampling another thing. (outputs from the neural net)
  • train a neural network to approximate existing data and then just sample its output. (seq2seq, char-rnn, PixelRNN, WaveNet, AlphaGo's policy network) Under this process you spend a long time optimizing for one thing (the loss function again) but a short time sampling another thing. (outputs from the neural net)

It's kind of an important distinction because like with humans, neural networks that can improvise in linear time can be sampled really cheaply (taking deterministic time!), while neural networks that need you to do an optimization task are expensive to sample even though you've trained them.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-08T10:15:39.835Z · score: 0 (1 votes) · LW · GW

First of all, Beethoven's "Für Elise" isn't a song, it's a bagatelle; let's get the genre right. (The previous sentence also demonstrates the proper use of the word "genre", by the way.)

The rest of your comment is just a reaffirmation of your confusion of mass culture and culture tout court. I (might) agree that mass-culture's greatness-producing capacities have plateaued, but I don't look to mass culture as a source of artistic greatness, so I don't really care.

If you studied music in sufficient depth, you'd see the possibilities for yourself, and your intuition would switch from "music is almost exhausted" to "mass culture is really poor at generating musical value".

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-08T15:04:17.927Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're failing to engage the question of the nature of songs and music as a metaphysical level. I agree that mass culture and dissemination of works is part of the discussion, but it doesn't seem like you're trying to engage with that nature of "what is a song?". (See a number of the longer comment chains by other posters who provided thoughts on this topic if you're not sure what is under examination besides mass culture and dissemination.)

comment by bogus · 2017-02-08T16:35:26.849Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

but it doesn't seem like you're trying to engage with that nature of "what is a song?"

The comment you're replying to did exactly that, actually. Since you seem to have missed that part, here's a hint: a song is a piece of music that's supposed to be sung by someone, i.e. it has lyrics, and a vocal part. Beethoven's Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor for solo piano (generally known as Für Elise) has neither: hence it's an instrumental piece, not a "song". (It's not even drawing overt inspiration from the song genre as a whole; but if it was, it might be somewhat sensible to call it a song by analogy/extension, as we do with Felix Mendelssohn's Songs without Words).

comment by gjm · 2017-02-10T13:38:52.276Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My understanding (which may be defective, because I'm pretty firmly embedded in the art-music context and am not well up on the activities of Popular Beat Combos) is that in some recent musical traditions the term "song" has a different meaning, something like "any piece of music suitable for putting on a single track of a CD". It is unfortunate that this meaning is so different from the other one, and I think the other one is better because it makes a useful distinction (and we could easily use something like "track" for the broader definition), but I think stephen_s is using a different definition of "song" more than he's ignorant of what "song" means.

[EDITED to add:] For the avoidance of doubt, I do agree that stephen_s's use of the word "song" suggests that he is probably not familiar enough with the world of classical music[1] for his pronouncement of its senescence to be taken very seriously.

[1] By which I take it he means, or would if informed a bit more, something like "Western art music". Or maybe not; maybe he really does mean it in the stricter sense, meaning something like "that variety of music running roughly from C P E Bach to Beethoven", in which case it should not be surprising if production of such music is slower than it was in Beethoven's day.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-08T17:34:54.325Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

To be more clear, putting pieces of music under different labels (bagatelle, folk song, house track, etc) doesn't have a bearing on this discussion of what is the metaphysical nature of a piece of music. I understand that I was using the word "song" colloquially for a piece of music. I was not attempting to initiate a debate on the dictionary definition of a song or its characteristics in relation to other types of music. Again, I would refer you to the metaphysical discussion that many of the other posters contributed to.

I understand that music categorization and music theory are a separate and important topic of which you may have an expertise in, but that is a different discussion.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-09T11:39:17.135Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I understand that I was using the word "song" colloquially for a piece of music. I was not attempting to initiate a debate on the dictionary definition of a song or its characteristics in relation to other types of music.

The vocabulary you use conveys information about your background, experience, perspective, and conceptual framework -- in short, your epistemic state. Someone who un-self-consciously uses the word "song" in the way that you have is unlikely to be familiar enough with music to have good intuitions about its ultimate philosophical nature. My suggestion to you, therefore, is that before attempting to philosophize about the size of musical space and the proportion of it that is occupied by the mass-cultural products that seem to constitute the entirety of your experience, you acquaint yourself further with the higher realms of human possibility in this domain, if not others as well.

I don't mean this as a slapdown -- I genuinely think your beliefs would change if you had more knowledge.

This all being said, the question of the ultimate information-theoretic limits of interestingness in the universe is (plausibly) an important one, and (this being Less Wrong) I recommend the Fun Theory Sequence as a starting point.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-09T18:16:36.284Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I understand your point. My experience is in the genre of rock music (which is songs) and not in classical music, so my explorations into the metaphysical nature of music is based on extensive experience with songs (and not in other pieces of music). However, I believe at the metaphysical level that this idea applies to, there is not a substantial difference in examining the nature of songs and other pieces of music. That may make the perspective I'm coming from clearer to you, or we may have to agree to disagree.

I have not read the Fun Theory Sequence article, but you're right that is connected to this topic. I appreciate the link. Thanks for your comments!

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-10T08:55:28.094Z · score: 0 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My experience is in the genre of rock music

Aieee! (The tradition of rock music is what you meant.)

However, I believe at the metaphysical level that this idea applies to, there is not a substantial difference in examining the nature of songs and other pieces of music.

Whether or not there is a substantial difference in the metaphysical nature of songs versus other kinds of musical works, there is certainly a substantial difference in the conclusions about musical possibility that one can draw if one's appreciative apparatus is exclusively (or near-exclusively) derived from mass culture, versus the case where one has a more refined artistic sensibility and greater powers of appreciation.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-10T21:35:05.610Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I understand what you are saying, but I am still curious if you agree that there is a limit of distinctness in music? It seems difficult to argue that there is unlimited distinctness in music, and I don't think you are, but that you are instead arguing that it requires a certain level of the artistic sensibility to gauge the limits of musical possibility.

If so, who do you think / what type of person would have the requisite artistic sensibility to make such a judgment with some accuracy (but still imperfect)?

If you have the requisite artistic sensibility (I'm not saying you asserted that but I'm curious if you do think that), what is your position on where our current collective body of musical works is in relationship to an objective limit in the distinctiveness of new music?

If you do not think you have the requisite artistic sensibility, are you saying that from your perspective and my perspective that we can make no predictions on whether humanity reaches a certain limit of distinctiveness in music this decade vs in 10,000 years? What I mean is, is your position that there is no way for someone without the necessary artistic sensibility to estimate any limit in the distinctness of music?

Thanks

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-08T17:15:21.235Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

IE "what is a piece of music?" from a metaphysical perspective.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-07T12:57:30.302Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I can tell, the phenomenon you're noticing is simply that mass culture is not a process that optimizes for artistic value. But why should anyone have expected it to be?

I just can't figure out what 'mass culture', 'elite culture' and 'artistic value' are supposed to mean in your argument. Taking music as an example, AFAICT, the main way in which our current 'mass culture' music differs 'artistically' from the 'elite music' of centuries past is that the latter was a literate genre, relying on the written medium of 'sheet music' in contrast to audio records. It's also true that music being distributed in recorded form implies a very different mode of consumption; music is no longer seen these days as something that the average person might want to actively engage with, in stark contrast to the past.

But even these facts do not seem to fully justify a conflation of "elite" status with "artistic value". For one thing, surely a lot of the "elite" music we now choose to value was consumed passively, e.g. in opera houses or as inoffensive background music to elite social gatherings (the latter spawning the entire subgenre of "chamber music"!), whereas the earliest forms of "mass music" (which in fact were first available in notated form, in contrast to later audio records) would be engaged with actively, mainly through amateur performance by middle- and sometimes lower-class folks. More generally, it often happens that we choose to value "elite" things of the past more, simply because they were associated with a social elite, even though these niche practices aren't actually very significant historically; and some of this seems to be going on here.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-08T10:24:37.429Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I just can't figure out what 'mass culture', 'elite culture' and 'artistic value' are supposed to mean in your argument.

I don't believe you, at least with respect to the first two (I'll grant that "artistic value" is harder to pin down, and I didn't make any attempt). Rather, I think you're (perhaps reflexively) attempting to enforce norms of discourse that are designed to prevent certain kinds of thoughts from being thought, or at least stated. Because I, on the contrary, think it's important for those thoughts to be heard, I'm consciously rebelling against those norms, which is why the style of my comments now is different from what it was in the past.

comment by 9eB1 · 2017-02-06T00:49:34.594Z · score: 4 (5 votes) · LW · GW

You may be interested in a post on gwern's site related to this topic.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-07T08:48:10.232Z · score: 0 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That essay -- or perhaps its rebuttal -- should be titled "Culture is Not About Consumption". Making heavy implicit use of an assumed dichotomy between production and consumption, it's a good example of the sort of Straw-Economist reasoning that plagues the LessWrongosphere.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-06T01:25:27.745Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Great, thanks for the link. I've read a fair amount of his stuff, but I didn't know he had an article on this topic.

comment by Erfeyah · 2017-02-05T21:33:03.767Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I would argue that you are taking a narrow view of what music is. The fascination with the collection and intellectual understanding of information, as well as an addiction to emotional impact is something that is characteristic of our culture. And of course the music produced by a culture will be a reflection of the mind of its people.

I recommend that you examine carefully the wide variety of functions that music (and art in general) has in traditional cultures. Emotional, medicinal, social, as an aid to memorisation (see the Australian aborigines or vedic chanting), religious and spiritual, war and discipline and the list goes on. It is an extremely complex, and actually not yet understood, subject. In my opinion what you see in mainstream art is the exaggeration of our cultural characteristics mediated by the ability to record, manipulate and reproduce 'art' en mass.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-05T22:01:01.919Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, I didn't mean to take a narrow view of music, just to narrowly examine "newness" in music, which is a different question. I agree that music serves many purposes besides pop consumption of new songs or works. That is something I would want to explore further at some point.

I was aiming to understand the metaphysical question: is there is a limit to newness in music, and if so what does that imply about our universe? Could examining that question give us greater clarity in understanding the limits of other discovery or creation?

comment by Erfeyah · 2017-02-05T23:16:04.518Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I see. It does still feel to me that you are asking a misguided question. I will try to unpack my thought so we can see where we are.

There are two concepts that are part of your question: genre and newness. Before examining these though, let's give an (inevitably inadequate) definition of art for the purpose of our discussion. Let's say that art is "the arranging and reproduction of sensory objects perceivable by humans, with the intention of producing an effect on a human being". This is as general as I can think of at the moment and it is important to point to the fact that the human being and its current state (instincts, language, culture, knowledge, conditioning, etc.) is part of the definition. I would argue that in this definition the permutations of possible artworks are essentially infinite.

But to get a bit closer to what you are trying to explore let's now carve out a subspace that you call 'genre'. This is where we are going to find a problem. I was, actually, just having this discussion with a friend of mine that is completing his PhD in Musicology and specifically in Jazz. He came to a point where he got really confused about what 'Jazz' means. Is it only trumpet, sax, double bass, piano etc. bebop style jazz? Is it still jazz if you play with electronic or traditional instruments? Is it still Jazz when there is improvisation but no theme melody? What about improvised traditional music of Turkey? You get the point. What is a genre anyway? I offered my opinion on the subject by saying that you are confusing a label with the thing itself. Naming a genre is useful for organising your database and communicating certain characteristics but a genre is not a real thing, it is a communication/organisation tool.

This can then clarify our question on 'newness'. If you can define a genre in a way that is restricted enough to seem limited then yes, it will be. But you should take care to avoid confusing a limited, artificial concept for the universe itself.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-05T23:57:12.956Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ok great, yes this is what I'm trying to get at. First of all, I think your definition of art is good.

To your first point, I would say that I believe instincts, language, culture, knowledge, and conditioning are factors in art. But I believe that they are all limited in possibilities as well. So the manifestation of those limited factors into different art would lead to limited possibilities of art.

Let me try and clarify that by addressing your next points. I agree that genres are not real things. Like all language, it is imperfect labeling for a practical purpose. To simplify the problem even more, lets take out the concept of genre. In the creation of music over time, songs share characteristics (instrumentation, sounds, structures, rhythms, etc), and the common characteristics of music shift and change over human history. Certain songs in a realm of shared characteristics appear to have a period of greater creation of significant works before songs with those characteristics eventually decline in quality. What I'm trying to get at is that it doesn't matter where you draw the lines for genres to determine whether there are limited possibilities in music as a whole.

The individual factors/characteristics of music are limited and therefore manifest into limited workable combinations (songs).

The article I link to "The Big Niche" is a three minute read and tries to explain the concept in totality if you have the time. I'm enjoying this back and forth.

comment by Erfeyah · 2017-02-06T01:22:22.702Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you for your answer. I reread your article more carefully. I think I can see what you are trying to do, though I am not sure what the utility of it is. I have disagreements based on epistemological and ontological grounds but I would like for start to focus on your example of music as to me it fails to demonstrate, if not contradict, your very point.

As I said in the previous post, there is no real completion of a genre. A completion can only be defined by defining a genre so the reasoning is circular. To give you another example, a huge chunk of modern music such as jazz, blues, rock, pop and the thousands of derivatives like metal, prog rock etc. are all using the same framework that Bach was using so can be conceptualised as being in the same genre. In other words you are creating boundaries by your definition and then offering your boundaries as evidence of completeness. That is not to say that my rebuttal proves that completeness is not possible. Just that the example is not working.

Now, no matter what you do, how much you flex your definition, I can always take you one level of abstraction out until we reach the definition of art I gave you in my previous post. And even further. But If you want, as a start, to focus on art, can you argue completeness from that definition?

If we can agree on that maybe we can debate the core of your argument.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-06T04:38:56.995Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for taking the time to read the article and continue responding. To progress further, maybe the idea I need to address is distinct points vs gradation.

Would you agree in music that there are limited factors involved in what makes a song? There are probably more than I can name (rhythm, chords, melody, instrumentation, etc), but there is a limit to how many factors are at play. These factors exist in limited distinct manifestations but that have infinite gradation. For example, look at the factor of instruments in an orchestra. There may be infinite gradations of each type of orchestral instrument (in the sound that it makes), but there are not infinite distinct types of instruments. Think about why there are around 24 instruments (I believe) in an orchestra--there are infinite gradations of instruments but a limit to distinct instruments.

The laws and matter of the universe manifests itself into limited distinct factors at play in music, which then manifests into limited distinct songs (those combinations of factors that produce a musical effect on a human being--related to our hearing and mental nature).

Within those possibilities of combinations of musical factors that can be put together and called a song, not all are equal in their effect on a human being. I can play a few chords randomly on the guitar, record the audio, and call it a song. But what separates that recording from The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction"? There are a limited number of distinct songs that we have recorded up until the present that can produce the same level of effect on a human being as "Satisfaction".

How can there then be an infinite number of distinct songs to create in the future that would have an equal or greater effect on a human being as "Satisfaction"?

Again, I'm not saying that we will stop creating music in the future. Just that at some point there will be a general consensus that our best works are behind us--the idea that "you can't reinvent the wheel". We will keep creating songs with infinite gradations, but they won't be infinitely distinct with as much of an effect on humans as the songs that came before. And while different songs have different levels of effect on different people, there is a non-perfect but non-arbitrary consensus on certain songs or artists having more of an effect than others (the extreme example being my random chords recorded have little effect vs "Satisfaction" having great effect).

As far as the utility of the idea, if we can view the sum of all possibilities as The Big Niche, then we can view all uncompleted possibilities as the remaining problems in the goal of human advancement. This can apply at a personal level to anyone looking to accomplish something great or contribute to human progress. For example, if you were a songwriter looking to make a significant contribution, it would be better to pursue an uncompleted genre (pop, hip hop, electronic, etc) instead of a mostly completed genre (classical, jazz, rock). But it also would apply to science, business, and technology: just like new instruments helped create new genres, a new technology or concept may create a new niche of possibilities in which to further explore in that field. Granted, progress in these fields already progresses in this way at an intuitive level, but it seems like having a stronger grasp of what is happening in human progress at a metaphysical level could only help (and couldn't hurt).

It also follows that if The Big Niche is the sum of all possibilities, then we could view an Ideal Niche as the interplay of the big niche with human nature--an ideal configuration of all possibilities for human benefit. So the goal of humanity would be to discover all knowledge, and then be able to remake society to find the distinct ideal equilibrium in all things. Like a great song is a distinct point in the niche of music, there is a distinct point in all facets of society as to what the ideal configuration for humans would be.

comment by Erfeyah · 2017-02-06T12:03:51.511Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Would you agree in music that there are limited factors involved in what makes a song?

Not really. There are limited factors if you define 'song' in a limited way (see previous post). What if I define a song as 'the arranging and reproduction of sonic sensory objects perceivable by humans, with the intention of producing an effect on a human being' ?

There are probably more than I can name (rhythm, chords, melody, instrumentation, etc), but there is a limit to how many factors are at play. These factors exist in limited distinct manifestations but that have infinite gradation. For example, look at the factor of instruments in an orchestra. There may be infinite gradations of each type of orchestral instrument (in the sound that it makes), but there are not infinite distinct types of instruments. Think about why there are around 24 instruments (I believe) in an orchestra--there are infinite gradations of instruments but a limit to distinct instruments.

Why are you choosing to focus on the limited factors (of our own defining) instead of the infinite gradations and permutations? And don't forget that music is created by the permutations. There are 12 tones in an octave in the western system but music is created, among many other things, by their arrangement in time. It is a completely different thing to play an A and then a C to playing a C and then an A. Also, why are there 24 instruments in an orchestra? Assuming that is true, it would be because people decided they liked the balance and it became a convention. But there is nothing that stops you using any number of instruments as a composer. You could decide that you want a dog in the middle of the orchestra that you have trained to bark when the maestro signs. Cool, now you have a dog concerto (sorry, too much avant garde exposure :P).

The laws and matter of the universe manifests itself into limited distinct factors at play in music, which then manifests into limited distinct songs (those combinations of factors that produce a musical effect on a human being--related to our hearing and mental nature).

Now, here is an, apparently, general statement. I would rephrase as: 'The laws and matter of the universe allow for sound waves, the permutations of which are experienced by humans through what we could define as 'songs' (those combinations of sound waves that produce an effect on a human being)'. I find this more accurate as I am being descriptive without sneaking in conclusions in my definition. The word 'limited' you will have to offer supporting arguments about.

There are a limited number of distinct songs that we have recorded up until the present that can produce the same level of effect on a human being as "Satisfaction". How can there then be an infinite number of distinct songs to create in the future that would have an equal or greater effect on a human being as "Satisfaction"?

A piece of music is experienced very differently from different people. We actually do not fully understand how it works. There are linguistic components, musical components, social components etc. Could you explain what you mean by 'effect'?

And while different songs have different levels of effect on different people, there is a non-perfect but non-arbitrary consensus on certain songs or artists having more of an effect than others (the extreme example being my random chords recorded have little effect vs "Satisfaction" having great effect).

Is this really true? This is related to defining 'effect' in my previous question. After we do that, we can ask about consensus. It is here where the rabbit hole goes on forever. There are people (I have met them) that would get much more 'effect' from your random chords recording than from "Satisfaction". For them "Satisfaction" draws them towards passivity but randomness excites them as a new sonic stimulus. They might connect this to philosophical schools and derive intellectual satisfaction, or just have a connection to a self-image of 'avant-garde' that craves non-convention. This you could argue is pathological but it is undeniable that you would get an 'effect' through the arrangement of sound waves. Is this art? Who's to say. We do not know what art is and that is what you will find in front of you one way or another.

Well it seems that, if I continue, I will end up in an ontological question. It was inevitable wasn't it? I think I will stop here for now ;)

P.S: Your argument for 'completeness' might have been easier if you did not focus on art.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-06T14:46:22.987Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I think we are stuck at this point. It seems that you are saying that it is self-evident that all relevant factors are unlimited and completely subjective, but from the points I was making I was trying to show why to me it is self-evident that the relevant factors are limited and objective. Just because something can have unlimited gradation, doesn't mean that something like "instrumentation" or "melody" is indistinct and has no boundaries. And the distinctness is what leads to its perceived limit.

Along the same lines, you are arguing against absolute objectivity in musical appreciation, but that is not what I was asserting. I was arguing that there is an absolute limit to the number of distinct songs with a certain combination of distinct factors, and that because human nature between people has commonalities, there is consensus and similar subjective experience (within a range) of what has a greater enjoyment or emotional effect on listeners (I was using the word effect in reference to your own definition). To argue that art or music is absolutely subjective and indistinct seems the exact opposite of what is self-evident to me. You would also have to deny any shared human nature as to what sounds or songs have an emotional or mental effect on people.

I think those two points are where we truly disagree and won't get past. Thanks for your input and the back and forth! I enjoyed the conversation.

comment by Erfeyah · 2017-02-06T15:12:24.951Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Just to clarify on your last comments:

It seems that you are saying that it is self-evident that all relevant factors are unlimited and completely subjective.

To argue that art or music is absolutely subjective and indistinct seems the exact opposite of what is self-evident to me.

I am not saying that. It is actually a mixture. The human nature part is objective. For example, as far as I can tell the perception of the octave is a human universal in music. But a large part of art, is undeniably subjective. This is easily demonstrated by exploring traditional music and checking studies on different cultures perception of each others music. You can think of the way art functions as linked to the nature / nurture human characteristic.

Thanks for your input and the back and forth! I enjoyed the conversation.

Thank you too. It was fun! :)

comment by ike · 2017-02-05T20:17:04.490Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But is this because of a fault of the Hollywood system, or is it because there are few significant movie story ideas left that have not been done?

Neither: revealed preferences of consumers are in favor of reboots so that's what gets made. That's only a "fault" if your preferences differ from that of most consumers.

(Although I've heard someone argue that piracy made independent films less viable: to the extent consumers would be willing to pay were no pirate option available, but lack of such payments causes fewer films to be made, that would be a market failure argument. I don't really have enough knowledge to judge that as an explanation.)

comment by Jiro · 2017-02-06T17:26:52.657Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Customers can only show revealed preferences based on what studios put out. It is possible that studios don't put out things that the customers would spend the most money on. (For instance, if studios are risk-averse and would release movies that on the average make less money, as long as the worst case is less likely.)

comment by bogus · 2017-02-07T12:19:05.097Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Although I've heard someone argue that piracy made independent films less viable: to the extent consumers would be willing to pay were no pirate option available, but lack of such payments causes fewer films to be made

Piracy is not an issue these days, but the inflexibility of current distribution arrangements still is. Part of the issue is that making a movie - even an indie one - is a lot more costly than most backers would expect, so indie creators generally set inadequate crowdfunding targets, expecting that they'll be able to make up the difference by signing on to a traditional distributor. However, all this does is compound problems. (Compare this to the games sector, where high-stakes crowdfunding campaigns have in fact become relatively common.)

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-05T20:48:02.390Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, you're definitely right about reboots reflecting the preference of customers. But what leads to shifts in movie customer preferences?

It seems to me that movie audiences want to see a combination of newer, bigger, and better. A movie that doesn't seem like a new story, or a similar story but a bigger scale, or a similar story told better, doesn't seem to interest audiences in general. It's that feeling of "I've seen all of this before."

Is there a limit to how many new stories we can create, how big in scale the stories are, and how well we can tell the stories? Marvel / Star Wars / Disney are having massive success retelling similar stories but in larger scale and with better CGI and technology than before. How can they keep getting bigger or better indefinitely though?

(This is besides other current market factors like a larger international audience which has its own preference for movies which changes demand for certain types of films. Also I don't mean that we will every stop making movies, just that it will be clear to us that the most significant films are in the past at some point.)

comment by siIver · 2017-02-05T19:28:15.543Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'd say no to both. I don't think any genre has come meaningfully close to completion, though I don't know classic of jazz very well.

Let's talk film. If I take a random movie that I didn't like, I find it very similar to others. If, however, I take one that I really like, I find that frustratingly few movies exist that are even similar.

I consider the possibility space to be a function of creativity/intelligence/competence (let's call it skill) of writing, and one that grows faster-than-linearly. The space of medium-skill writing may be nearing completion (though I think this is arguable, too), but the space for more intelligent writing is vast and largely unexplored.

Just think of how many similarities most movies have, starting with the Hero's Journey archetype. This need not be. My two favorite non-animated pieces in film both don't have a main character.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-05T20:59:25.054Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The reason that I bring up classical and jazz, is that there has been a clear slowdown in meaningful additions to the genres over the past few decades. So, if music genres reach a limit of possibilities, then it seems likely to apply to other areas of art as well.

Yes, I agree that there are more intelligent (or less simple) stories that haven't been written yet. I'm not sure if you are saying that you agree that there is a limit of possible stories, or that you think there is no limit? If there is a limit, what do you think would be the signs that we are reaching it?

I would agree that it seems from intuition that there are a lot of available stories still left to be written, but what would explain the slowdown in original properties being created or finding an audience currently (than in previous decades)?

comment by Hal · 2017-02-05T23:16:52.831Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In the specific cases of jazz and classical music, it seems like a slowdown in creation of original properties could be pretty plausibly explained by those types of music not being very popular anymore (why that is so is a more complicated question), and so not attracting as many of the talented musical minds of the most recent generations. The people who were going into jazz and classical music 50 years ago could be going into rap and electronica now, and it would look pretty much like our world, I think.

I'm not sure if this is actually true, as I know very little about the general state of the music world and how it works, but it seems like a reasonably possible explanation at first, and certainly comes to mind before "we ran out of jazz". Another possibility is that the music industry has changed greatly over the last few decades, and what qualifies as a "meaningful addition" to a genre is less clear than it ever was, as genres splinter and people's musical tastes are given the option to diverge. I much prefer Snarky Puppy's "Shofukan" to, say, "Take the A Train", but there's no way it could reach the same level of cultural saturation because people have so many other choices now (it's not just listening to the one or two jazz stations on your local radio or going to live music if you have a chance, it's Spotify, Soundcloud, YouTube, and probably more).

I float both of these as just ideas; I haven't thought very hard about either of them, but at first glance, at least, they both seem more plausible than "we have made all of the good jazz and classical music already". Yes, such a theoretical limit exists, but music is so incredibly complicated that it's really unlikely we've hit it yet. It seems more reasonable to think this slowdown is due to something else, unless there's good evidence that the limit specifically is the cause.

I could very well be wrong, though. I'm not very confident about any of this because it's a tricky topic.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-05T23:35:34.796Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's an interesting idea, and yes I'm still thinking through the idea myself. But couldn't the lack of popularity of a genre could be caused by the slowdown in release of substantial new works? Declining quality leads to less popularity?

I'm thinking of it in terms of the idea that "you can't reinvent the wheel." Each song or style is a concept that once created can't be recreated, and in the case of art it loses its freshness eventually.

I think it works at the level of a single band or artist as well. Take AC/DC for example. They released most of their "classic" material in the 70s and 80s. They continued to release albums through the 90s and 2000s, but the songwriting didn't seem to be as high of quality to most fans. Is it possible that their specific hard rock / blues rock sound had a limit to how many "great" songs they could write and they exhausted them by the 90s? Could that be a microcosm of music as a whole having a limit of styles and great songs that are eventually completed?

comment by Hal · 2017-02-06T03:09:35.513Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, whether the lack of popularity of jazz and classical music is caused by their slowdown or their slowdown is caused by their lack of popularity is one of those tricky questions. There's definitely causation going both ways, but it's really hard to tell which part has more impact, or which one changed first to start off the decline (and if they're both driving each other now, does it even matter which one started things off?). If I had to guess, I'd say that the rise of rock, pop, and (slightly later) hip-hop music gave people new musical options, and this led to the decline in popularity of jazz and classical because, for social reasons, their new competitors were more appealing to most people. This would then cause talented musicians to be attracted to the newer genres, making the older ones worse and less popular, and kicking off that whole vicious cycle. I'm completely speculating here, though; music history is not my forte.

The example of a single band like AC/DC is interesting, and them running out of good music is quite plausible, but other plausible explanations exist too. It would make just as much sense to say that the band members and their relationships changed with time, and since most ways in which a band can exist do not lead to the highest quality music, these changes made them worse. This would explain their declining quality just as well as your hypothesis, and it's hard to tell which is true.

It is certainly true that each song is unique, and once made, that point in song-space will no longer be fresh for the rest of time. The question is whether or not the space of good songs is so large that we don't care about specific points; if it is, your concern is unfounded. I'm not really sure what the truth is here, but I'm leaning toward the space being quite large. Music has a lot of different knobs to turn to make songs original (even while staying within the same genre), and I think you'd need more convincing evidence than "these genres' good output is reducing along with their popularity" to conclude that we've made all the good stuff already.

A bit of supporting evidence for this: classical music can probably be reasonably considered to be a more constrained genre than jazz, with less options for songs because of its stricter style, and therefore a smaller total number of "substantial works". It has existed for hundreds of years longer than jazz music has, so it would be very odd for both genres to be running out of good ideas at the same time, because, based on its longevity, you'd expect jazz music to last much longer than a few decades. Granted, those few decades were in the 20th century only, when much more music was being created than in previous centuries, but the point still stands, if a bit weaker than it could have been. This seems to imply that it's not actually running out of ideas that's causing the decline in substantial new work, if I'm understanding it right. As to what it actually is, though, I don't feel qualified to say.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-07T10:11:37.768Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

classical music can probably be reasonably considered to be a more constrained genre than jazz, with less options for songs because of its stricter style, and therefore a smaller total number of "substantial works".

FYI: you make some good points, but this is very, very false.

No musical tradition in the world has ever encompassed a wider range of musical possibilities than that of Western art music (what you refer to as "classical music").

comment by Hal · 2017-02-08T03:00:00.487Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, I was worried about that, thanks for the feedback.

I don't know that much about any kind of music, but to the extent that I do know anything I'm much more knowledgeable about jazz than "classical". This is a common failure mode, I think: underestimating the complexity of things you're unfamiliar with compared to those you know better. (It also doesn't help that I learned about jazz into the context of playing it, while I learned about "classical" in the context of learning rule-oriented music theory).

This might completely invalidate my point, then, but I think jazz can at least come close to "classical"'s range of possibilities. Granted, that might be only because of the vast range of free jazz-y stuff that's unlikely to ever become widely popular. If the point does still stand (since, after all, jazz has existed for significantly less time), it is only in a weakened form.

Also, I'm inclined to believe what you're saying about "no musical tradition in the world" ever being as wide-ranging as "classical" music, but it is a pretty substantial claim. Do you mind elaborating on why you think that's so? I'm honestly mostly asking out of personal interest, not doubt; I want to learn more about this.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-08T09:31:30.534Z · score: 0 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This might completely invalidate my point, then, but I think jazz can at least come close to "classical"'s range of possibilities

It comes the closest of any popular tradition, certainly, but not really that close in absolute terms.

Also, I'm inclined to believe what you're saying about "no musical tradition in the world" ever being as wide-ranging as "classical" music, but it is a pretty substantial claim. Do you mind elaborating on why you think that's so?

It's similar to the reason that Western civilization is the most diverse and heterogeneous of civilizations: because it eventually absorbs everything else.

Art music in the Western tradition has had over a millennium to develop, during which time it has come into contact with all other known traditions and incorporated their possibilities into its own possibility-space.

There is almost no property you can name that every piece of "classical" music must have; to my knowledge it's the only kind of music that doesn't even require sound. (Could you imagine a silent jazz piece?)

comment by bogus · 2017-02-08T18:40:10.272Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's similar to the reason that Western civilization is the most diverse and heterogeneous of civilizations: because it eventually absorbs everything else.

Art music in the Western tradition has had over a millennium to develop, during which time it has come into contact with all other known traditions and incorporated their possibilities into its own possibility-space.

That's a compelling vision/ideal, but I'm not sure that it's a good description of the reality. Most people in 'Western art music' focus their attention on a very small repertoire - much of it from central Europe, much dating to the 19th or late-18th century. Now, I'm obviously not arguing that this traditional repertoire is wholly undeserving of our attention, but surely we would expect to see more variety than that.
For good measure, even the folks who are composing new 'Western art music' with no connection to that traditional repertoire, are hardly doing a good job of being in "contact with all other known traditions and incorporat[ing] their possibilities"! By and large, they seem lost in their own variety of free-wheeling experimentation, much of which is of no lasting value whatsoever. (That is, the results of this experimentation are by and large not popular, not musically interesting, and not even valuable as achievements of pure technical prowess!) Sure, sometimes a few people from that community manage to produce something worthwhile - Arvo Pärt; John Cage, at least for his 4'33'' - the only piece of music I'd listen to all day long! - Einojuhani Rautavaara; Kaija Saariaho, etc. So, maybe we should indeed celebrate these folks as our own star composers - the Mozart's and Beethoven's of our time. But with "mass music" at the same time having undergone a veritable Cambrian explosion of diversity since the mid-20th century, without sacrificing either popular appeal or musical interest, is this really the best we can do?

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-09T10:31:21.149Z · score: 0 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's a compelling vision/ideal, but I'm not sure that it's a good description of the reality. Most people in 'Western art music' focus their attention on a very small repertoire

The nice thing about artistic visions is that they don't require permission from "most people"; all they have to do is make sense. Art is not a slave to sociology. (The idea that we should be obsessed with sociology is one of mass culture's memetic imprints.)

Notwithstanding its detailed appearance, your second paragraph is written in far mode (it sounds like a political statement, and doesn't seem informed by a model of your interlocutor); what is needed to understand this topic is a lot more of near mode.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-09T11:36:46.404Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Artistic visions don't require permission, but arguably they do require some buy-in, if they are to make any impact in the real world. You seem to be acknowledging this too, inasmuch as you state that we shouldn't focus too much on the 'sociology' of what most people are doing, but should instead switch to 'near' mode - presumably to be more aware of the best and most successful outcomes. In that case, I do agree that this can be helpful. And I did list quite a few examples of folks who have done very interesting things, in my opinion.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-10T09:42:53.329Z · score: 0 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Artistic visions don't require permission, but arguably they do require some buy-in, if they are to make any impact in the real world.

No man is an island; a coherent artistic vision will inevitably find "buyers" (not that I endorse the commercial metaphor). Furthermore, there is overlap between differing visions, and even to some extent between visions and the undirected activities of those lacking a vision. The vision of art music I expressed above hardly puts me in an isolated corner; it has plenty of contact with the visions of other people and other aspects of the world. (I can't be the first person you've ever heard express such a vision; even historians I don't like chart out basically the same cluster of musical activity I do as their subject matter.)

And I did list quite a few examples of folks who have done very interesting things, in my opinion

Your list struck me as a list of aspects of art music that have been filtered through mass culture in some form -- thus, well short of a concession that the art-music tradition as such actually exists. Indeed, as you might expect, I generally find the mass-culture-approved parts of art music far from the most interesting; your list didn't contain much that is exciting to me.

And this does seem consistent with your dialectical stance -- you seem to be saying, "art music doesn't really exist (any more), but here are some things that look kind of like it that do exist -- though you'll notice they aren't really in the same league with Mozart and Beethoven." Well, I do agree that the contemporary pickings are rather aesthetically slim when it comes to mass-culture-approved phenomena derived from art music.

But that isn't the filter I use.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-10T23:03:11.647Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The vision of art music I expressed above hardly puts me in an isolated corner; ...even historians I don't like chart out basically the same cluster of musical activity I do as their subject matter.

well short of a concession that the art-music tradition as such actually exists. ...[Y]ou seem to be saying, "art music doesn't really exist (any more), but here are some things that look kind of like it that do exist -- though you'll notice they aren't really in the same league with Mozart and Beethoven."

At this point, I notice that I am confused. You seem to be saying that my previous post was somehow misrepresenting the "cluster of musical activity" that these historians 'chart out as their subject matter' - and that you obviously care about as well. Do you mean that, e.g. Arvo Pärt and Kaija Saariaho are not members of the art-music tradition? Or perhaps that others within that tradition have also been unexpectedly successful, if perhaps only in esoteric ways that "mass culture" could never approve of and/or acknowledge for some reason - even though Mozart and Beethoven did in fact enjoy some measure of popularity in their own time?

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-11T00:21:00.791Z · score: 0 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My remark about historians charting out their subject matter pertained to the exchange above where I said that Western art music encompassed everything from medieval plainchant to John Cage's 4'33'', and you replied (in effect) "but most practitioners of Western art music don't have a repertory that large (so therefore this definition is idiosyncratic on your part)"; and I was trying to say, "no, it's not idiosyncratic to me; even people like Richard Taruskin agree with it (for all that they would snort with contempt at my idea that it's possible to continue to practice this tradition)."

Do you mean that, e.g. Arvo Pärt and Kaija Saariaho are not members of the art-music tradition?

They are examples of the phenomenon of the art-music tradition being put through a mass-cultural filter, which in my view is a kind of corruption (or at least a corrupting tendency, which might be compensated for in a given case by other factors).

if perhaps only in esoteric ways that "mass culture" could never approve of and/or acknowledge for some reason - even though Mozart and Beethoven did in fact enjoy some measure of popularity in their own time?

Mozart and Beethoven's "popularity in their own time" (i.e. high status in the subculture they were members of) should not be confused with mass-cultural appeal in ours; these are quite different things (even if there is a connection in the form of mass culture having adopted some of the products of the Mozart-Beethoven culture as part of its initial inheritance, with the result that Mozart and Beethoven have some mass-cultural appeal, which is of course eroding over time as mass culture optimizes according to its own criteria).

comment by bogus · 2017-02-11T01:31:50.523Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"but most practitioners of Western art music don't have a repertory that large (so therefore this definition is idiosyncratic on your part)"

That's not quite what I was thinking of though. It's not that the definition is idiosyncratic to you; the problem is that the mere fact that we can define "Western art music" as comprising all of that history does not reassure us much about the continuing inclination of folks in that tradition to keep learning from the music styles/traditions around them and to integrate the new 'possibilities' that these styles of music are opening up. Of course we can simply choose not to care too much about what 'most practitioners' are doing, and that's fine too. Although even mainstream historians of music don't do a very good job at engaging with non-'elite' music traditions, even those for which a lot of evidence is available (as with the first mass-market sheet music). There are quite a few truisms about music history that just don't stand up to a bit of deeper scrutiny in the light of primary sources - such as the prevailing notion that the galant/classical style of the 18th-century simply "evolved" into the more bombastic and 'romantic' music of the 19th and early-20th century. In fact, there is significant continuing heritage and development from 18th-c. styles through the mass-culture music of the 19th century, and the influences go as far as the 'Great American Songbook' of the early 20th c. and of course its broad equivalents in non-"American" contexts (Of course, the 'Songbook' was in itself a continuing influence on later mass-market music, even up to the present day).[1]

[1] (Similar things go even more strongly for any history of e.g. literature that blithely ignores "mass culture" material, since mass-market printed literature is a lot older than mass-market sheet music! The tradition of cheap so-called 'chapbooks' is an obvious pre-existing influence for the meteoric and otherwise entirely mysterious "rise of the novel" in high-status literature in the 18th century!)

"popularity in their own time" (i.e. high status in the subculture they were members of)

I'd argue at least about Beethoven, that he did enjoy something more than mere 'high status' in his own circle, and significantly closer to "mass appeal" in his known time-- surely the well-known fact that his funeral in Vienna was attended by 20,000 people must be of some significance!

As for Mozart, while he did not reach this sort of comparative "mass appeal" he did strive for it - and in fact he was close in some ways, e.g. as a concert performer and with his late 'Singspiel' The Magic Flute.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-11T03:32:09.472Z · score: 0 (1 votes) · LW · GW

the problem is that the mere fact that we can define "Western art music" as comprising all of that history does not reassure us much about the continuing inclination of folks in that tradition to keep learning from the music styles/traditions around them and to integrate the new 'possibilities' that these styles of music are opening up.

I didn't say (and don't think) that the value of the Western art-music tradition lies primarily in its diversity and appropriative tendencies; rather, I think of those as being mostly by-products of the ambition which characterizes Western art music, which is closer to the actual source of its value. A rather contingent by-product at that, to the point where, in the context of mass culture, optimizing for "integration" in this sense is outright counterproductive, since ambition is exactly that aspect of music that mass culture tends first, and most, to erode.

Consequently, I am inclined to think of the conservatism you allude to as very possibly being a net positive force, despite some potentially deleterious short-term effects on attitudes toward modernism. After all, modernism requires tradition in order to be properly appreciated anyway.

Consider Schenker. He was wrong about Reger and Schoenberg, but of far greater importance is how right he was about the threat of mass culture, in the sense of it being inimical to the values he found in Mozart and Beethoven. The appreciation of Reger and Schoenberg is ultimately better approached from Schenker's worldview than from one that doesn't recognize musical ambition as a concept. Conservatism and modernism are better served by each other than either is by postmodernism.

such as the prevailing notion that the galant/classical style of the 18th-century simply "evolved" into the more bombastic and 'romantic' music of the 19th and early-20th century

Of course it did; there is a continuous lineage that can be traced. To deny this is to assert that romanticism sprang out of nowhere, which is absurd. Classicism may have evolved into other things as well, because trees can have more than one branch.

Robert Gjerdingen's agenda is a destructive one: he is trying to read the ambition I referred to above out of 18th-century music, so as to sever it from the 19th and 20th centuries. The 19th and 20th centuries being when the notion of the Western art-music tradition was (retrospectively!) conceptualized, he is in effect trying to destroy the Western art-music tradition. From your point of view, it probably just looks like he has this shiny new theory, and a lot of this may even be unwitting on his part, but there are larger forces at play. He is implicitly polemicizing on behalf of mass-cultural values.

I'd argue at least about Beethoven, that he did enjoy something more than mere 'high status' in his own circle

"His own circle" isn't what I said; what I said was "the subculture that he was a member of". The subculture in question did happen to include more or less the entire city of Vienna at that time, because it was still basically in a pre-industrial, artisanal economic regime, ruled by a feudal aristocracy.

I guess if you want to try to imagine what Beethoven's status in his culture would look like if "translated" into ours, imagine that our world was such that every billionaire had their own orchestra, and Bill Gates' court composer was Brian Ferneyhough. The kind of "mass appeal" that Ferneyhough would enjoy under those circumstances is probably roughly comparable to that enjoyed by Beethoven in Viennese society in the 1820s. It is in any case the closest one can come to imagining what mass culture would look like, if it were just a straightforward continuation of aristocratic culture with a larger population, evolution of technology, etc.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-11T11:39:04.416Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

After all, modernism requires tradition in order to be properly appreciated anyway.

Very true, but it seems that most 'modernist'-inclined folks do not understand this. I think we'd be seeing a lot more of a continuum between very "traditional" and very "modernist" music, if they did. And I'd also argue that bombastic "ambition" similarly benefits from a contrast with unassuming, "unambitious" music. This is why I think the continuing survival of 18th-c. values and styles can be viewed as quite possibly a positive force, and not at all "destructive".

Robert Gjerdingen's agenda is a destructive one: he is trying to read the ambition I referred to above out of 18th-century music, so as to sever it from the 19th and 20th centuries.

I think he's a lot closer to saying that this sort of "ambition" did exist in that composers displayed it, but that it didn't matter very much at that time, and that other values happened to be more influential. Doesn't he specifically say that W. A. Mozart's music was so ambitious that people at the time had trouble appreciating it, and that this is a key reason why he was not considered as good as other court composers? (Specifically, in the last chapter of his book on the 'galant' style, he says: "Mozart... often located his utterances at the margins of what was acceptable musical behavior. Thus, his work could delight or repel depending on the listener or performer..."; he then quotes a contemporary composer as saying that Mozart's string quartets "according to my as well as the great theorists' judgment are worthy of the highest praise, but ... however, because of their unrelenting extreme artfulness are not everyone's purchase". He later comments similarly on an early work of Beethoven. That seems to be quite far from a destructive agenda of 'read[ing] ambition ... out of 18th-century music' .

(Of course we can't be sure that this wholly agrees with e.g. Schenker without knowing more about what values Schenker did find especially worthwhile in Mozart and Beethoven. For instance, the sort of large-scale "organic unity" that Schenker seemingly valued the most was arguably developed no earlier than the late-18th and early-19th century - which is in fact when comparable notions of 'organicism' were first described by music theorists of the day, such as Ernst Kurth and E. T. A. Hoffmann. --I'm sourcing this tidbit from a freely available PhD thesis which actually has a lot to say about how nineteenth-century music in Vienna featured both continuity and divergence from earlier practices.)

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-12T10:31:57.443Z · score: 0 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And I'd also argue that bombastic "ambition" similarly benefits from a contrast with unassuming, "unambitious" music.

First, ambition is entirely distinct from bombast. (The Well-Tempered Clavier is an ambitious work, but -- by and large -- not a bombastic one. Hollywood film scores, on the other hand, are often quite bombastic without being the slightest bit ambitious.) Second, the relation between modernism and tradition isn't simply one of contrast, but (more importantly) one of development. True modernism is just the current manifestation of tradition, so knowledge of tradition is necessary not as a contrasting backdrop but as ancestral context.

(Interestingly, the terms "modern" and "modernism" seem to date from just that time -- the late 19th/early 20th centuries -- during which continuation of tradition ceased to be the only conceivable option, in the face of the competing possibilities of mass culture and what might be called "historical reenactment".)

This is why I think the continuing survival of 18th-c. values and styles can be viewed as quite possibly a positive force, and not at all "destructive".

Mass culture certainly does not represent the "continuing survival of 18th-c. values and styles"! There is a reason I said that Gjedingen's polemicization on behalf of mass culture was implicit. Maybe it's even somewhat indirect. On the direct, explicit level Gjerdingen is advocating for what I called "historical reenactment" above (I don't say "historicism" because I prefer to reserve that word for certain tendencies within the tradition, or, as the latter is also known, modernism). But "historical reenactment-ism" is most likely itself a tool of mass culture (if among the more benign ones), and in Gjerdingen's case anyway all you have to do is look at where he came from (Meyer and Narmour, the sort of "music theory" generated endogenously by the "scientific"-industrial complex), and what he's opposing (retrospective reinterpretations of the 18th-century, i.e. the development of tradition) to understand what kind of force he represents.

the sort of large-scale "organic unity" that Schenker seemingly valued the most was arguably developed no earlier than the late-18th and early-19th century

Not at all. Schenker himself found it in abundance in J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti.

which is in fact when comparable notions of 'organicism' were first described by music theorists of the day, such as Ernst Kurth and E. T. A. Hoffmann

(Hoffmann is in that timeframe, but Kurth was a century later.)

comment by bogus · 2017-02-12T16:44:20.808Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Mass culture certainly does not represent the "continuing survival of 18th-c. values and styles"!

There's a decent argument that it does, though. The earliest forms of mass culture in a musical context, inasmuch as that term makes any sense, are from the 18th century in places like Great Britain, where the feudal aristocracy was giving way to a robust middle class (if it hadn't already done so by that time); the development of engraving made sheet music reasonably cheap. The Beggar's Opera is from 1728. More significantly, this 'lowly' sort of music was not seen as a distinct tradition persay. Johann Christoph Pepusch, the composer/arranger for the Beggar's Opera, was a founder and director of the 'Academy of Ancient Music', which - in an early sort of "historical reenactment" - was devoted to music that was at least a century old at the time. Of course he composed plenty of music in 'elevated' genres, notably sacred music, concertos and sonatas. Other composers at the time similarly moved quite freely between the 'elevated' music of the day and the lowliest and most popular genres (As perhaps the most distinctive evidence of this, in France - certainly not the least "feudal" or "aristocracy"-ruled country, prior to the French revolution - hundreds of collections of music were published with the title 'Airs sérieux et à boire' - meaning "serious airs, and airs for drinking"). The 18th century is also when people really started to collect folk songs, often publishing them in refined harmonizations/arrangements for performance - and these arrangements were of course in what we would now call a 'classical' style!

The "retrospective reinterpretations" of the 18th c. tradition you seem to care about the most are indeed, by and large, reinterpretations. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of value in them - as well as, more generally, in the successive 'development' of that 'tradition' as "romantic" and even "modernist" music; much of the value of this 'development' is indeed in its continued ambition. But this was not the only 'continuation' of that tradition - for that matter, it wasn't even the most influential one, as far as most listeners today are concerned! If we agree that knowledge of tradition is desirable as "ancestral context", then it does no good to simply remove or disregard "lowly" culture in its entirety, as it was a key part of that context.
The biggest problem is that we don't need to 'read the ambition ... out of 18th-century music, ... to sever it from the 19th and 20th centuries' because the 'romantic' music of the 19th century was breaking off anyway, if only gradually, and not to the same extent in every place - and arguably, these chickens really came home to roost in the middle-to-late 20th century as much of the most "ambitious" music became altogether irrelevant, being inscrutable to just about anyone except maybe the very people who had composed it in the first place.

Hoffmann is in that timeframe, but Kurth was a century later.

E.T.A. Hoffmann has to be the clearest single example then. (There's a decent chance that Kurth did discuss these early theories in his own work, but it's hard to tell because his works are so obscure.) Anyway, it does seem to be the case that this is when these notions were first engaged with and became popular.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-13T12:20:52.903Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

much of the most "ambitious" music became altogether irrelevant, being inscrutable to just about anyone except maybe the very people who had composed it in the first place

This non-sequitur is at the heart of what I am trying to communicate that I think you have yet to understand.

Mass culture is not the only option. It is not the unique, natural determiner of "history". We do not have any obligation to consider an activity "irrelevant" just because the population concerned with it is somehow "small". (In this case it happens to actually be larger than you imply, but that doesn't even matter.) What counts is how interesting that (possibly small) population, and its products, are.

The beauties of mathematics are "inscrutable" to most of humanity. But as anyone who has studied those beauties in depth knows, that is most of humanity's loss.

For goodness' sake, if we want to talk about a continuation of 18th-century values, the notion of musicians being the target audience of music was perfectly ordinary to J.S. Bach, notwithstanding the scorn heaped upon it by the (decidedly more recent) memeplex that you are channeling.

But these sorts of historical arguments aren't even the point. The point is that we humans, equipped with powers of agency, have the ability to look out at the world, including history, and synthesize tradition for ourselves in accordance with our artistic vision. We don't need permission from the rest of the world. Bach often seemed to think of God as being his target audience; this seems artistically correct, even though God doesn't exist.

I have already acknowledged that mass culture was seeded with elite culture, so it is of no use to point out that the beginnings of mass culture manifest products that resemble those of elite culture. And I have never advocated "disregard[ing] lowly culture in its entirety", if you are talking about the processes that produced The Magic Flute. But you are simply equivocating if you go on to identify those processes with the processes that produced Britney Spears. Any inability to distinguish between the two on your part (or rather, on the part of the standard academic view which you are recognizably representing) is an illustration, rather than a refutation, of what I have been saying.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-13T16:10:35.364Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Mass culture is not the only option. It is not the unique, natural determiner of "history". We do not have any obligation to consider an activity "irrelevant" just because the population concerned with it is somehow "small"... The beauties of mathematics are "inscrutable" to most of humanity. But as anyone who has studied those beauties in depth knows, that is most of humanity's loss.

Perhaps there was a bit of a misunderstanding about this. When I said that some thing has become "irrelevant", I certainly didn't mean to suggest that it's somehow morally wrong or inappropriate for people to be interested in it! By the same token though, we can certainly consider an activity that does strive to 'seed' mass culture to be more worthwhile than a very similar activity that doesn't. And the "seeding" of mass-culture music by elite culture was not a one-time, isolated event, but rather a continuing linkage that persisted for the entirety of the 18th century - and even to some extent for much of the 19th century, depending on place, genre and the like - before finally breaking off entirely. Some of that break was probably inevitable - the introduction of recorded, and later of amplified sound being obviously a major disrupting event, see below - but surely not all of it, if only because 'mass culture' is itself a fuzzy concept, and some parts of it are obviously more susceptible of literate ('elite') influence.

For goodness' sake, if we want to talk about a continuation of 18th-century values, the notion of musicians being the target audience of music was perfectly ordinary to J.S. Bach

I'll grant that this is indeed a very significant difference between the 18th and 19th centuries (and earlier times too, of course) and the present day. But that's because prior to the spread of recorded sound, performing music (that is, being a "musician" - if perhaps with the only audience being the performer themselves!) was a mass activity, to the extent permitted by societal wealth and available technology (i.e. lots more people - and even people in the lower classes, thanks to cheap instruments like the guitar - could be musicians in the 19th c. than in the 15th c.), in a way that it just isn't today. It's quite wrong to credit this notion to 'elite' culture alone: this simply isn't what was going on!

And I have never advocated "disregard[ing] lowly culture in its entirety", if you are talking about the processes that produced The Magic Flute. But you are simply equivocating if you go on to identify those processes with the processes that produced Britney Spears.

Well, see above for one way in which the cultural milieaus and musical values that led to The Magic Flute and to Britney Spears' discography were indeed very different. But the milieu that led to The Magic Flute - and if you don't agree about that, you'll certainly agree about its _sequel_, "Das Labyrinth oder Der Kampf mit den Elementen. Der Zauberflöte zweyter Theil", or about dozens of other Singspiele, or about ballad operas and other sorts of musical theater, which later reached their apex with Broadway - was recognizably a 'mass culture' milieu.

BTW, you say that my view is a "standard academic" one but Adorno that this is really the case. Music departments have yet to show any sort of interest in the "beginnings of mass culture [music]", to the significant detriment of scholarship about both the 'classical'/elevated/elite and the 'popular' genres. The traditional idea of a single "elite" canon still rules the day there.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-14T21:24:38.562Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

By the same token though, we can certainly consider an activity that does strive to 'seed' mass culture to be more worthwhile than a very similar activity that doesn't

Why should we, unless we're confident that mass culture tracks our values? The original seeding didn't occur because of any such "striving"; it just occurred because there wasn't anything else better-optimized already lying around for mass culture to operate on. That is no longer the case now, and indeed we're no longer in an era where "seeding" is possible, since mass culture already has its own material to work with.

To put it another way, Mozart didn't have to "compromise" much if at all in order to write a Singspiel, in comparison to the degree that a contemporary serious composer would have to in order to write a Broadway musical (or even, frankly, anything that achieves any renown at all in the 2010s "mainstream" milieu, i.e. the space from which your earlier examples of contemporary music were drawn). This is true even if, from the inside, it felt to Mozart like he was making a large compromise (which is doubtful).

I definitely agree about the importance of active participation as opposed to passive consumption. In fact, I suspect this may be the ultimate root of the distinctions between elite culture and mass culture that I actually care about; when I talk about "mass culture", I am really talking about consumer culture.

Two observations leap to the fore: (1) a participatory culture makes the notion of a skill-level hierarchy more apparent and well-defined, and (2) "composers writing for composers" is a way of describing a participatory culture (which suggests that its use as a derogatory description is pathological).

There is a certain human quality that will seek out active participation in the face of the apparent option of passive consumption. This is the quality necessary to the continuation of the art-music tradition, and is the quality I am seeking to cultivate.

(One might think here of Glenn Gould's vision of recording technology allowing people to interact with a work and "recreate" it similarly to how a performer would.)

BTW, you say that my view is a "standard academic" one but Adorno that this is really the case

I can't tell whether there is a missing verb here or whether this is some kind of amusing pun on "I don't know". I'm fairly confident that Adorno (who seems to have had an aesthetic sense akin to mine, though mine is probably wider) was no fan of mass culture, and would have recognized the distinctions I have been pointing to.

In any case, "standard academic view" was insufficiently precise; "contemporary academic trend" would have been better. The traditional idea of an elite canon no doubt still persists (conceivably to the point of domination) through institutional inertia, but the rhetoric is quite different these days, and I think in this case the rhetoric reflects the trend. This is to be expected ("Cthulu always swims away from interestingness"), because universities aren't actually the anti-populist fortresses that Milton Babbitt envisioned them as, but are rather political institutions that are expected to be "relevant" to "society".

Luckily, we seem to be in a refragmentation, wherein niche cultures will supplant mass culture in people's psychology, and more of them will feel allowed to be interesting.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-14T23:41:06.295Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

a participatory culture makes the notion of a skill-level hierarchy more apparent and well-defined

Not so. Fetishizing extreme 'skill', virtuosity, stardom etc. is a marker of a consumer culture, not a participatory one. One needs only look at what may be the earliest comprehensively-documented instance of a mostly- or entirely-passive musical culture, namely the elite dramma per musica a.k.a. opera seria, to be sure that this is the case! (This is something that people were keenly aware of at the time - which is why opera was eventually reformed to make it more "natural".)

"composers writing for composers" is a way of describing a participatory culture (which suggests that its use as a derogatory description is pathological).

Well, to the extent that they are indeed engaging in such an activity for the sake of participation, this is certainly true. But it's quite doubtful to me that even the "anti-populist fortress" of academia (as you put it later in your comment) can escape its own sort of consumer culture-ish dynamics. In this case, of course, such dynamics involve, not so much 'compromising' for the sake of mainstream popularity, but precisely the striving for some peak of perceived 'skill' and stardom (as judged e.g. by influential critics, patrons/funders and other outsiders), even when this is to the detriment of the overall interestingness and breadth of the participatory process.[1]

If so, this may be a case where all we can do is pick our place on a deeply uncomfortable tradeoff - since neither of these processes seems to track the values we would prefer! But a combination of the refragmentation you point to later on[2] and an increase in influence from the more self-consciously "low skill" and "DIY" subcultures seems to offer the best hope for improvement. Which is paradoxical indeed if you simply assume that these "DIY" subcultures must be "mass" cultures and thus cannot possibly help further an "elite" tradition.

[1] A further issue compounding this 'Moloch' problem, is that - much like J.S. Bach who thought of the Lutheran God as being his audience - most "academic" composers nowadays seem to be making music to worship Ra. The Lutheran God very possibly does not exist, but everyone has experienced 'Ra' in some form, and I for one don't think of Ra-worship as especially worthwhile, either artistically or in a broader social sense.

[2] (I had actually been taking this process for granted; I agree that the increasingly-consolidated, capital-intensive, "mainstream" music industry is obviously not a force for increased participation!)

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-18T01:14:52.228Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Not so. Fetishizing extreme 'skill', virtuosity, stardom etc. is a marker of a consumer culture, not a participatory one.

Here you have once again done something that you have done a number of times before, which is to "round off" my meaning to something completely different from what I intended. A skill-level hierarchy is a completely different concept from the fetishizing of extreme skill, to the point where they are almost opposites: extreme skill will tend to be fetishized (as opposed to admired) in situations where ordinary skill is not appreciated -- situations where sensationalistic superstimulus is required for "the audience" to tell that anything interesting is going on at all.

In the early days of video games as a spectator sport, some people wondered how watching someone play a video game could possibly be interesting. The people who wondered that tended to have less experience playing video games themselves than the actual audience did. The increased ability (and, in particular, the detailed ability) to appreciate someone else doing something as the result of having tried to do it yourself is what I am talking about when I talk about there being a hierarchy of skill levels.

Consider something like chess, where enthusiasts who know where they stand via their Elo rating also get more out of watching top masters play than passive audiences do.

But it's quite doubtful to me that even the "anti-populist fortress" of academia (as you put it later in your comment)

You will notice that I said that academia is not an anti-populist fortress. Hence your reversion to far mode to talk about what "most academic composers" seem to be doing or not doing is beside the point. I don't think academia is a healthy system, and I think Babbitt was wrong to expect it to foster his activity. (In fact, it barely did so in his own specific case, as he often complained about, despite the fact that he operated mostly during a time when academia seemed much more promising than it does now.)

Forgive the tu quoque, but I find it interesting that you say

I for one don't think of Ra-worship as especially worthwhile, either artistically or in a broader social sense

given that according to my model, Ra-worship is basically the generating force behind your entire argument. You seem to be uncomfortable with the "messiness" of modernism (which, I claim, is what you're really talking about when you talk about "academia", even though the trend in academia, guided by Ra, is away from modernism and toward promoting people like Part and Saariaho as opposed to people like Babbitt and Ferneyhough), the contrarianness of a stance that says "to heck with mass culture, and the 'trends of our time', I want to be more interesting than that".

It would be interesting to know what you think of the following two claims:

(1) You enjoy mass-cultural popular music a lot more than I do; but my lack of enjoyment does not particularly result from a lack of understanding of what is going on in the music.

(2) I enjoy modernist art-music a lot more than you do; and some degree of comprehension failure is implicated in your lack of enjoyment.

I believe both of these, but am more confident in (1), which is informed directly by your comments (including under a possible alias elsewhere), than (2), where priors are doing most of the work.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-18T13:00:34.790Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Here you have once again done something that you have done a number of times before, which is to "round off" my meaning to something completely different from what I intended.

That sort of misunderstanding is a risk in any discussion, of course. I have no quibble against either the appreciation of 'ordinary skill', or "the increased ability ... to appreciate someone else doing something as the result of having tried yourself". Both are normal dynamics in a participatory culture. But AIUI it would be wrong to state that 'sensationalistic superstimulus' plays no part at all in the popular appreciation of "top" art-music performers.

...You seem to be uncomfortable with the "messiness" of modernism

I am less concerned about messiness persay than about lost purposes - after all, there is certainly quite a bit of "messiness" in other sorts of music (e.g. in early music, or some current subcultures of mass/popular music)! Regardless, I am quite willing to be convinced otherwise. (I do also agree that some critiques of musical "modernism" are rather off the mark, most clearly when they simultaneously elevate all the 'usual suspects' - starting from Beethoven's music, sometimes even Wagner's - to quintessential and transcendent "landmarks" of Western culture! That attitude is certainly Ra, and I suspect it might be what you're getting at here.)

(1) You enjoy mass-cultural popular music a lot more than I do; but my lack of enjoyment does not particularly result from a lack of understanding of what is going on in the music.

I think it's certainly possible that you don't enjoy mass-cultural popular music at all, which would make the claim true. As it happens my interest in present-day popular music is sort of tangential.

(2) I enjoy modernist art-music a lot more than you do; and some degree of comprehension failure is implicated in your lack of enjoyment.

I certainly don't claim to understand 'modernist art-music' in detail, although I'm abstractly familiar with the basics of what is supposedly going on in that sort of music. (Stated differently, one could also say that my familiarity and even my enjoyment of that kind of music is limited to "far mode", and does not extend to "near mode".) By contrast though, I do fully enjoy some pretty late 19th-c. and early 20th c.composers such as e.g. Richard Strauss, even though I'd say that a full "comprehension" of what that music involves is quite non-trivial.

(It would be interesting to know about your stance towards styles other than contemporary pop or modernist art music. That might help me understand your point of view somewhat better).

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-22T12:18:04.935Z · score: 0 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I do also agree that some critiques of musical "modernism" are rather off the mark, most clearly when they simultaneously elevate all the 'usual suspects' - starting from Beethoven's music, sometimes even Wagner's - to quintessential and transcendent "landmarks" of Western culture! That attitude is certainly Ra, and I suspect it might be what you're getting at here.

It can be a manifestation of Ra, but sometimes isn't -- the key counterexample is Schenker, who is very anti-Ra. Of course, this fits with my contention that Schenker's dislike of modernism was actually a mistake from his own point of view.

But the contemporary "mainstream" quasi-consensus of "sure, Beethoven & co. were cool back in the day, but now, check out our ability to pay homage to all our various political factions while making sure not to be too 'difficult' or 'problematic'!" -- that is about as Ra as it gets.

I certainly don't claim to understand 'modernist art-music' in detail, although I'm abstractly familiar with the basics of what is supposedly going on in that sort of music. (Stated differently, one could also say that my familiarity and even my enjoyment of that kind of music is limited to "far mode", and does not extend to "near mode".)

Right, this is what I suspected. ("Supposedly" is right, because the things you're abstractly familiar with bear pretty much the same relation to what is actually going on in that sort of music as the pre-Schenkerian theories did to what was actually going on in Mozart and Beethoven: orthogonal to the most important issues at best, actively misleading at worst.)

(Am I really suggesting that the same mistakes were made again, without anybody bothering to learn from the example of Schenker, despite paying plenty of lip-service to his achievement within a supposedly narrow domain? Yes. Academic fields don't actually work!)

(It would be interesting to know about your stance towards styles other than contemporary pop or modernist art music. That might help me understand your point of view somewhat better).

I think what would most help you, or anyone, to understand my point of view is not political "stances", but near-mode engagement: detailed discussion of particular musical works. To this end, I intend to resume blogging in the near future.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-22T16:30:23.059Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(Am I really suggesting that the same mistakes were made again, without anybody bothering to learn from the example of Schenker, despite paying plenty of lip-service to his achievement within a supposedly narrow domain? Yes. Academic fields don't actually work!)

I thought Lerdahl and Jackendoff had actually addressed the potential of Schenker-like approaches to modernist music, with quite pessimistic results. To quote from their Generative theory of tonal music:

...much of this music withholds evidence for structural parallelism that would lead to any rich hierarchy of grouping structure... Pitch enters only through consideration of linear connections[] and registral extremes[]. The absence of cadential formulas of some kind removes an important indicator of larger-scale[] structure. [I]ntuitions of tension and relaxation... are based less on pitch[] than on rhythmic, dynamic and timbral consideration, and[] large-scale pitch connections do not play a great role in[] comprehension of the music. [If] in addition[] there is little evidence for a regular metrical structure[,] the resulting metrical structure follows the irregularities of local detail and hence cannot be extended to any depth... [T]he mutual interaction of meter and time-span[] is weakened[;] the prolongational reduction is weakened too... Since the music in question often avoids symmetry and overt repetition... the evidence on which to base grouping judgments is predominantly that of local detail[]. As a consequence, little multilevel[] grouping can be constructed beyond the most obvious textural divisions... [N]onhierarchical aspects of musical perception (such as timbre and dynamics) tend to play a deeper, compensatory role[, b]ut this is not compensation in kind; [it] result[s] in a kind of music perceived very locally, often as a sequence of gestures and associations. Its complexity often resides in the extreme refinement of individual nuances...

Does your approach address these concerns in some way? (Note that one can certainly object to the specifics of L&J's model of musical perception, but the remarks above are in fact quite general, and do not seem to depend on these technical details).

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-23T00:08:12.865Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Lerdahl and Jackendoff are a superb example of what I mean when I say that academic fields don't work. (Incidentally, their book is bizarrely titled; there's hardly anything "generative" about their ugly reductive theory at all, in contrast to Westergaard, who actually does present "a generative theory of tonal music".)

I will give them an important concession: if what they say were true, there would indeed be no reason, from my point of view, to be interested in modernism. (Actually, their claim amounts to an assertion that modernism wasn't possible, and only postmodernism could -- or, anyway, did -- follow the Romantic era.) Music -- at any rate, the Western art-music tradition -- would have died.

Imagine coming to some understanding of the profundities of the Western art-music tradition -- in particular, the incredible richness of the system of tonality -- and then being told, all of a sudden, that nobody is interested in that any more, because, like, fashions change, or something.

One could be forgiven for breaking into an existential crisis of despair. (In fact, I did, for a long while.)

The correct thing to do in this kind of situation, however, is to notice that one is confused. Does it really make sense that a bunch of composers at least as steeped in tradition as you (our hypothetical despairing teenager, whether literally teenaged or not), would all suddenly decide to stop doing an interesting thing and start doing a non-interesting thing? Because "times have changed"?

Or might it conceivably be the case, just maybe, that the discourse surrounding their activity hasn't entirely managed to capture all aspects of the actual phenomenon? (Perish the thought!)

Lerdahl and Jackendoff -- along with everyone who implicitly believes what they explicitly state -- are mistaking ignorance in the map for absence in the territory: "if I can't find it, it must not be there." (Academia is remarkably poor at noticing confusion! I mean, they're probably as good as everyone else, but much worse than their mythology claims they are.)

To which the response is: try harder.

I have yet to see anyone really try. I have also yet to see anyone try to do Schenkerian theory as well as Schenker, let alone better. I claim these two facts are connected.

There are a couple of half-hearted attempts by Roy Travis (handicapped by insufficient grasp of Schenker), and Felix Salzer tries a bit with Bartók (but not Schoenberg). Beyond that, basically crickets. And if you ask people what's going on here, they'll tell you that Travis and Salzer already tried that, and it "wasn't successful" or "didn't really lead anywhere". Apparently people find it easier to believe that composers stopped composing Western art music in the 20th century, than that they themselves don't understand music theory well enough.

I'm sort of reminded of this:

When the heroine of a dystopian YA novel uncovers the big lie at the center of her society, she wakes up tied to a chair in a dungeon, and a hooded agent of the shadow government says, "Congratulations, you figured out the secret. You will keep quiet about it, or you will regret it."

In real life, when you uncover the big lie at the center of your society, everyone just sort of sneers at you and says, "What, that old theory? That was debunked years ago!..."

comment by bogus · 2017-02-23T01:44:21.432Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(Actually, their claim amounts to an assertion that modernism wasn't possible, and only postmodernism could -- or, anyway, did -- follow the Romantic era.)

No love for musical impressionism, I take it? Which personally seems more akin to 17th/18th-c. attitudes to music than anything from the romantic era. Anyway, ISTM that romantic-inspired music is alive and well these days. Lately of course it's been further enhanced with some influences from impressionism and 'world'/'folk' genres, and even the rare case of a genuinely successful compositional technique from the modernist era! (viz. Elliott Carter's manipulations of rhythm and meter, which were also adopted by the minimalists.) This sort of music is what you hear in the best movie soundtracks, but these are of course inspired by forerunners in the art-music tradition.

Does it really make sense that a bunch of composers at least as steeped in tradition as you (our hypothetical despairing teenager, whether literally teenaged or not), would all suddenly decide to stop doing an interesting thing and start doing a non-interesting thing? Because "times have changed"?

The thing is - it might, for some values of "interesting" and "non-interesting". After all, if you take Gjerdingen's POV seriously, this is precisely what happened in the 'romantic' art-music of the 19th century. (You don't have to actually share this point of view for this to be a cause for concern; you just have to realize that plenty of people like the music of the 18th-c. and expressly dislike 19th-c. art-music, finding it bland and uninteresting, and then ask yourself why that might be!). The "modernist" impulse itself was quite consistent with that earlier memeplex.
It matters little that those composers were "steeped in tradition", when the memeplex itself was pushing to reject slowly- and collectively-accreted tradition, and embrace innovation and the individual composer. And I'm not even saying that this was a bad thing; it did work wonders - for a while. It gave us so many outstanding pieces of music! But it really isn't much of a surprise that things would start to go haywire at some point.

To which the response is: try harder.

Can you even 'try harder' to find interesting structure, in a way that will do more than 'simply' pick up on random noise? Mind you, there's nothing wrong in itself with seeking patterns in noise; it can, and often does, lead to artistically-meaningful results. (Just ask DeepDream!) But that's just the baseline outcome. Is there any hope for doing better than that, and finding some truly unexpected "signal"?

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-23T04:36:07.413Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Does it really make sense that a bunch of composers...would all suddenly decide to stop doing an interesting thing and start doing a non-interesting thing? Because "times have changed"?

The thing is - it might, for certain values of "interesting" and "not interesting". After all, if you take Gjerdingen's POV seriously, this is precisely what happened in the Romantic art-music of the 19th century.

I submit that anyone who thinks this is what happened in the Romantic art-music of the 19th century should notice their confusion in exactly the same way I was suggesting above. And I'm quite willing to believe that Gjerdingen understands 19th-century music a lot less well than he understands 18th-century music; in fact, that's almost obvious. (He could find his schemata -- or maybe others -- in 19th-century music if he looked, but he doesn't look because he's committed to the Pennsylvania-school paradigm wherein only the surface of music exists.)

(A seemingly-tangential but potentially important remark: there are two senses of "concreteness" that may come up here, one good and one bad. The good kind is Horus as opposed to Ra, which is something like specificity as opposed to vagueness, or near mode as opposed to far; the bad kind is S as opposed to N in the Myers-Briggs sense, which is like a failure, or refusal, to see patterns -- its opposite is what I usually mean by abstraction when I use that as a positive-affect word. Penn-school-style music theory is bad because it is too "concrete" in this S-sense, and lacks or strongly discourages the N-style "abstraction" which is at the core of Schenkerian theory, and absolutely necessary for understanding 19th- and 20th-century art music in anything like a reasonable way.)

The "modernist" impulse itself was quite consistent with that earlier memeplex.

This is false if what you mean is that the modernist impulse was about undoing the 19th century in some sense.

It matters little that these composers were "steeped in tradition", when the memeplex itself was pushing to reject slowly- and collectively-accreted tradition, and embrace innovation and the individual composer.

This, again, is wrong, perhaps in an important way worth explaining. In brief, it's a far-mode narrative obscuring the near-mode truth.

Consider this question: was Schenker "steeped in tradition", or did he embrace the "individual composer"? Obviously, the question is wrong. The whole way that this tradition works is that there is this vast edifice of cultural knowledge against which the individual work, or individual composer, is thrown into relief. Semper idem sed non eodem modo.

A common and misguided criticism of Schenkerian analyses is that they "don't capture" this or that "salient" detail. This is wrong, because the analytical content of a Schenkerian reduction does not lie in the reduction itself, but in the contrast between the reduction and the score. You, the reader of the analysis, are supposed to be able to infer the operations that lead from the former to the latter, and these operations are the content of the analysis. So, a generic Schenkerian basic structure is always specifically informative about the details of the piece; one chooses between different candidate Schenkerian structures not on the basis of quantified "informativeness", but rather on aesthetic grounds partially intrinsic to the structures themselves. (This is why performing a Schenkerian analysis is a creative act that feels similar to composition.)

Can you even 'try harder' to find interesting structure, in a way that will do more than 'simply' pick up on random noise?... Is there any hope for doing better than that, and finding some truly unexpected "signal"?

I don't think you quite appreciate the degree to which people really, really haven't been trying -- or perhaps, to put it more charitably, haven't been looking at things in the right way (though I strongly feel that the work of Schenker ought to have been sufficient to suggest the right way).

If you think that the appreciation of 20th-century music (but not 18th- or 19th-century music) consists of picking up patterns in random noise (as opposed to patterns that were designed by humans to be picked up), you are missing something huge.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-23T13:23:30.146Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

he's committed to the Pennsylvania-school paradigm wherein only the surface of music exists.

I'm pretty sure that this is not literally the case - there are lots of primary sources (from the 18th c. and earlier) which clearly refer to the process of elaboration from a "simple" to a "complex" musical surface, and he points to some of these sources. Moreover, he does deploy something quite close to analytical reduction in his work on schemata.

Your remarks about Schenkerian analysis might be more on point - the real failure in that paradigm would then be the focus on a single level of reduction as the "real" one, whereas one should consider the analysis as a whole as well as the operations leading from one level to the next. That's certainly an interesting point of view.
It should be noted though that Gjerdingen does discuss these processes of elaboration from the bare "schema" to the musical surface in a rather detailed way - he just does so in the text, without using a layered notation like Schenker. Moreover, there's some reason to think that the very existence of well-known middle-ground "schemata", and the widespread practice of improvising further layers of elaboration in performance, might have resulted in these operations being quite salient to the 18th-c. listener, in a way that we aren't fully aware of today. Thus, I actually think that there's plenty of room for both perspectives!

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-23T15:34:39.974Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

there are lots of primary sources (from the 18th c. and earlier) which clearly refer to the process of elaboration from a "simple" to a "complex" musical surface

For example, C.P.E. Bach's Essay on the Right Way to Play the Keyboard, which, along with Fux' Gradus ad Parnassum, is claimed by Schenker as one of his two principal antecedents.

It should be noted though that Gjerdingen does discuss these processes of elaboration from the bare "schema" to the musical surface in a rather detailed way

Which is why Gjerdingen's work is as interesting as it is -- because, in other words, he's reinventing Schenkerian theory. Make no mistake, it's a tour de force on Gjerdingen's part that he was able to start from Pennsylvania and work his way toward Schenker, sort of. No doubt it would be too much to ask of him to carry this process through to completion, or at least to the point where he could make sense of the 19th century. And I do think his book can be worth reading, so long as one approaches it as history and not theory (and one remains aware of the inherent art-destroying tendency of institutionalized historical scholarship).

But it is striking how often anyone who seems to be doing anything at all interesting in music theory turns out to be reinventing Schenkerian theory, usually in an inferior form. Another example is Daniel Harrison, author of Harmonic Function in Chromatic Music, who announces at the beginning of his book that Schenker's "coin" won't do to pay back our "debt" with respect to analyzing the late-Romantic chromaticism of Reger, Strauss, Mahler, etc.; and then a scant few pages later is excitedly telling us about his brilliant new theory that "harmonic function" resides in individual tones rather than "chords". Who would have thought?! Who, that is, except ...

comment by bogus · 2017-02-25T01:26:24.862Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But it is striking how often anyone who seems to be doing anything at all interesting in music theory turns out to be reinventing Schenkerian theory

Well, maybe. Don't get me wrong, I think Schenkerian theory should be required reading for any serious theorist, but it's all too easy to think that any theorists who have some worthwhile points outside of Schenkerian theory are "just doing music history", or "just talking about 'surface' variation" that's supposedly irrelevant to 'deep' forms of the art, or "just nitpicking" the finer points of this or that style. To take just one example, Neo-Riemannian and transformational theory is as far from Schenker as anything could be, but it still describes features of music that can be perceived quite readily upon listening, and this arguably makes it worthy of study. Even Dmitri Tymoczko's work is not that bad if you ignore the hype about it and simply read it as a sensible extension on the earlier Neo-Riemannian/transformational perspective.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-25T05:12:01.795Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think Schenkerian theory should be required reading for any serious theorist, but it's all too easy to think that any theorists who have some worthwhile points outside of Schenkerian theory are "just doing music history", or "just talking about 'surface' variation" that's supposedly irrelevant to 'deep' forms of the art, or "just nitpicking" the finer points of this or that style.

This is a good example of a sentence that sounds written in the voice of Ra: "Yes, your faction is important, but surely we're not going to entertain specific arguments that it's actually strictly more important than these other Powerful Factions, are we? The Invisible Hand of Coolness has already bestowed its blessing upon these various factions, including yours, thereby obviating the need for any explicit power struggle!"

The intellectual reality is this: Schenker in music theory is a figure of comparable importance to Darwin in biology. People before him really weren't even doing the subject yet, and people after him who act as if he hadn't existed are doing the subject even less.

The fact that, in the case of music, the sociological reality doesn't reflect this intellectual reality is nothing less than a pathology.

The fact that saying this breaks the rules is arguably an even greater meta-pathology (Ra).

"All too easy"? Yes, and just why is it so easy? It's easy because Gjerdingen isn't actually doing anything other than

(1) music history, i.e. documenting shared stylistic features of a chronological cluster of music; and

(2) anti-artistic polemic, viz. undermining the Western art-music tradition by promoting a narrative that severs the 18th century from the 19th (and thus from us in the 20th and 21st, as well).

(1) could perfectly well be done inside of Schenkerian theory (and Gjerdingen's feeble semblance of an attempt to argue against this claim on pp. 33-39 falls far short), and (2) is just an outright bad thing to do.

Even Dmitri Tymoczko's work is not that bad

You have to be kidding me.

To come to that conclusion, you have to do more than ignore the hype. You have to ignore the subtext, which is so apparent as to not actually be subtext at all, but text. That book is a populist tract. The agenda is laid out plainly at the beginning.

For Tymoczko, all music is pop music. In particular, modernist art music is just very strange pop music that nobody likes. To the extent it has value it all, its value lies in its shocking weirdness. He is completely incredulous of, if not oblivious to, any notion that any other mode of listening or approach to music is possible. His orientation is thoroughly anti-intellectual, and the fact that he has been able to acquire such prestige (we're talking about a Princeton professor who uses the word "cerebral" as a pejorative) is a perfect illustration of the malfunction of contemporary academia.

Ultimately, however, people like Tymoczko are, I regret to say, perhaps the unintended consequence of something that looked healthy and productive, once upon a time, including to me: the epistemological positivism of Babbitt, Westergaard, et al. I now realize that the reason it seemed fine in their case was the cultural capital in the background: they took the Western art music tradition, and its value, for granted. I now suspect that Tymoczko and the Penn School are what it looks like when positivism is deployed without that assumption. This has caused me to update strongly against positivism.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-25T13:49:36.049Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The intellectual reality is this: Schenker in music theory is a figure of comparable importance to Darwin in biology. People before him really weren't even doing the subject yet, ...

That's kind of pushing it, I think. The main and most robust insights of Schenkerian theory were actually known centuries earlier than Schenker; nevertheless he can be credited for rediscovering these insights and rephrasing them in something closer to a positivistic way, as opposed to the resolutely pragmatic stance taken by many earlier theorists. His work as a music editor and critic probably had something to do with that.

This is a good example of a sentence that sounds written in the voice of Ra: "Yes, your faction is important, but surely we're not going to entertain specific arguments that it's actually strictly more important than these other Powerful Factions, are we?

--And yet even biology has its own "stamp-collecting" subfields happily coexisting besides the "evolutionary" specialties - and we usually don't attribute this arrangement to nefarious influence by the Powerful Faction of young-earth creationists within the biology department.

(1) could perfectly well be done inside of Schenkerian theory ...

Look, you're right that Gjerdingen's attitude about Schenker is mostly a matter of the intra-academic politicking that you deplore in this comment. But this is hardly a novel claim, or something that "breaks the rules" inside academia: David Temperley effectively said as much in his 2006 review of Music in the Galant Style!
And at this point, I think we'll just agree to disagree about (2); I think there's room for plenty of "narratives" about 18th-c. music, of which the 'mainstream' one emphasizing the purported links to what would later coalesce as the Romantic and Modernist tradition is one of many.

[Tymoczko's] book is a populist tract.

I regard the 'populist' subtext of the book as part of the unimportant "hype" about it, and I suspect that many music theorists would do the same.

To the extent it has value it all, its value lies in its shocking weirdness.

I thought it was in fact a consensus point of view in the core "modernist" period that music had to be shocking and weird, and that any music that wasn't shocking and weird would be considered "reactionary" (in a rather politicized sense)? It's hard to see how this once-widespread stance is meaningfully different from a claim that "shocking weirdness" is exactly what gives that music its value.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-26T11:04:24.636Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The main and most robust insights of Schenkerian theory were actually known centuries earlier than Schenker

Not only would I deny that, I would further assert that the main insights of Schenkerian theory are basically still not known by the music theory community. This is why Daniel Harrison can write about viewing chords as collections of individual scale-degrees -- literally one of the foundational premises of Schenkerian theory -- as if he is proposing something radical: because in point of unfortunate fact, he is.

To be sure, tacit knowledge of the phenomena Schenker describes long predates him. But making the tacit explicit is a large part of what Schenker is about.

nevertheless he can be credited for rediscovering these insights and rephrasing them in something closer to a positivistic way

I would certainly not credit Schenker (who was adamant that he was doing "art" and not "science") with being "positivistic" -- that's a label one would reserve for someone like Westergaard. And you'll recall that in my previous comment I expressed doubt about positivism being good anyway. I no longer think that the "epistemic" or "methodological" criticisms of Schenker (typically coming precisely from "positivist" quarters) are of any particular importance.

(In terms of Clark Glymour's taxonomy, I have switched from being a logical positivist to being an "English professor".)

And yet even biology has its own "stamp-collecting" subfields happily coexisting besides the "evolutionary" specialties - and we usually don't attribute this arrangement to nefarious influence by the Powerful Faction of young-earth creationists within the biology department.

That's because the stamp collectors aren't writing anti-Darwin polemics; they simply accept Darwinism as the background paradigm (at least as far as I understand). The fact that Schenkerian theory does not enjoy similar background-paradigm status -- and, perhaps even more, the fact that it is not infrequently asserted that it does even though it clearly doesn't -- is a sign of dysfunction in the field, as far as I am concerned.

Look, you're right that Gjerdingen's attitude about Schenker is mostly a matter of the intra-academic politicking that you deplore in this comment. But this is hardly a novel claim, or something that "breaks the rules" inside academia: David Temperley effectively said as much in his 2006 review of Music in the Galant Style!

As far as I could tell, David "[n]o one would call me a Schenkerian" Temperley said nothing like what I said. His criticism of Gjerdingen was more like the mirror image of your argument to me: Gjerdingen shouldn't be so dogmatically attached to his own paradigm, and should realize that Schenkerian theory, too, has "something to contribute". No, thank you -- Schenker is better off without the (false) protection of Ra.

(Incidentally, the example he offers at the end of the review to illustrate "how a cooperative and open-minded engagement between schema theory and other approaches might illuminate music-theoretical issues" -- doesn't that sound like political boiler-plate to you? -- is an exercise in vacuity. He starts off by complaining that Schenkerian theory "is unable to explain why descending- fifths sequences are so much more common than ascending-fifths ones", which is the wrong kind of question to begin with -- if anything it suggests that the phenomenon in question is probably not best understood simply as "descending- fifths sequences", but rather in a more, ahem, Schenkerian way. But let's run with it. What does Temperley propose as the answer?

Gjerdingen's examples show us that the Prinner pattern had a life of its own and very often occurred without the descending-fifths progression. This historical evidence gives new credence to the contrapuntal view of descending-fifths sequences: Perhaps such sequences did arise, in part, as harmonic elaborations of a con- trapuntal pattern

In other words, Gjerdingen dug up a bunch of examples of the unelaborated version, and not only was this enough to convince Temperley that it constitutes an "explanation" of the elaborated version, where the evident inherent relationship of the two hadn't been, but it suddenly relieved him of his curiosity with regard to the alleged statistical disparity between the ascending and descending variants, despite the fact that Gjerdingen himself makes no attempt to explain why the Prinner is so much more common than its ascending counterpart which failed to make it into his catalog. Such piffle!)

I think there's room for plenty of "narratives" about 18th-c. music, of which the 'mainstream' one emphasizing the purported links to what would later coalesce as the Romantic and Modernist tradition is one of many

You may be content with a detached view from afar, where it seems like everybody ought to be able to just get along, but I make no apology for the fact that I, as an artist, have skin in the game; and, in the face of the ever-tempting, corrupting mind-viruses of complacency and anti-ambition, the narrative I believe in will not survive -- much less as the 'mainstream' one -- without a fight.

[Tymoczko's] book is a populist tract.

I regard the 'populist' subtext of the book as part of the unimportant "hype" about it, and I suspect that many music theorists would do the same

The anti-intellectual orientation is reflected in the very methodology (an extremely concrete--in the bad sense-- and superficial mode of listening is assumed throughout), and in the choice of questions considered fit for study. (E.g., "why do most people prefer tonal to atonal music?" Even aside from the whiff of "9 out of 10 dogs prefer our brand of dog food" commercialism, what a thoroughly stupid question! You might as well ask why most people "prefer" arithmetic to calculus, or some such.)

I thought it was in fact a consensus point of view in the core "modernist" period that music had to be shocking and weird, and that any music that wasn't shocking and weird would be considered "reactionary" (in a rather politicized sense)?

This is a caricature at best and a rank equivocation at worst. Similar views were attributed to Beethoven by his contemporaries, with about as much justifiability. Problematicity, and perhaps even a certain kind of "unpleasantness" at first glance were an important parts of the aesthetic of modernism, but (as with Beethoven) a deeper sense of beauty and continuity of tradition were always underlying. It was always still art; never was it shock for shock's sake.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-26T13:44:55.672Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

To be sure, tacit knowledge of the phenomena Schenker describes long predates him. But making the tacit explicit is a large part of what Schenker is about.

I was indeed pointing to the extent to which the description of 'Schenkerian' phenomena was quite explicit. (Taking elaboration/'composing out' as one example, you pointed out C.P.E. Bach's work about the keyboard already, but Quantz's treatise on playing the flute is also significant, as well as the many, many treatises and other sources which expressly discuss "diminution" around the 17th c. - the EarlyMusicSources website gives a helpful list of those.)

(In terms of Clark Glymour's taxonomy, I have switched from being a logical positivist to being an "English professor".)

Yeah, Clark Glymour has been criticized for that particular contention of his - see this review of his book. It's not at all clear that taking an aesthetic attitude towards the world, like many English professors, literary critics and art critics more generally do, involves any real 'rejection' of logical positivism stricto sensu - as opposed to merely 'rejecting' a naïve sort of philistine and overenthusiastic 'scientism'! Most "positivists" would probably regard such a contention as a blatant category error.

But it's debatable that this should concern the Music department, which is after all not primarily charged with creating new art, but with explaining and making sense of the musical traditions that are already out there - including, to be sure, romantic music and modernism.

I make no apology for the fact that I, as an artist, have skin in the game; and, in the face of the ever-tempting, corrupting mind-viruses of complacency and anti-ambition, the narrative I believe in will not survive -- much less as the 'mainstream' one -- without a fight.

Choosing your own narrative is of course your prerogative in what's clearly an artistic context, as opposed to a more detached retelling of history. Surely though the best defense against 'complacency and anti-ambition' involves recognizing the value of musical ambition itself.

That's because the stamp collectors aren't writing anti-Darwin polemics; they simply accept Darwinism as the background paradigm (at least as far as I understand). ...

That's a problem to be sure, but ISTM that the field is slowly improving. "Anti-Schenkerian polemics" are becoming increasingly rare, and they increasingly debate only the most marginal and contentious aspects of Schenker such as his epistemic stance, or to what extent his "organicism" should be applied to earlier music. The introductory curriculum is still not chosen in a way that would reflect Schenkerian theory as the 'background paradigm', but that's one of the hardest things to change in any academic field.

...despite the fact that Gjerdingen himself makes no attempt to explain why the Prinner is so much more common than its ascending counterpart which failed to make it into his catalog. Such piffle!

I really don't understand this. Why should we even expect the "ascending Prinner" to be as common as the "descending one" within any specific style? Explaining this sort of stylistic variation is just not something you can sensibly do with a general model of tonal music like the one Schenker gives you. Moreover, as Gjerdingen makes abundantly clear, the Prinner itself did not exist in a vacuum; it interacted with other patterns in a complex way. Perhaps the "ascending Prinner" simply didn't feature the same affordances, and this explains why it was neglected.

comment by komponisto · 2017-02-28T05:59:00.256Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I was indeed pointing to the extent to which the description of 'Schenkerian' phenomena was quite explicit

"Diminution" was known, yes, but reversing it as a general analytical method, much less following this to its ultimate conclusion (the Ursatz), certainly was not. Here are some other concepts that were not explicit before Schenker:

  • the hierarchy of structural levels (Schichten);
  • the specific relationship of strict counterpoint to free composition (and, in particular, the distinction between them -- see the introduction to Counterpoint);
  • Stufen as "spiritual" entities, as opposed to concrete sonorities;
  • Stufen as generators of musical content (motives);
  • the strict distinction between "harmony" (the theory of Stufen) and "counterpoint" (the theory of voice leading) -- in particular, the dubious relevance of traditional "harmony exercises" with their "doubling rules" etc.;
  • the concept of "organic coherence", i.e. tonal closure as achieved in the Ursatz;
  • the "law of the passing tone", i.e. linear progressions (Züge) being the true explanation of "harmonic motion";
  • the "line model" of music (as opposed to the "chord model"; this is admittedly more explicit in Westergaard than Schenker); in particular, the hierarchy of lines (more explicit in Schenker than Westergaard!); in particular, the fact that a single line can give rise to other, subordinate, lines that depend on it at later levels (absolutely essential to the proper understanding of highly chromatic or "atonal" music).

If only these ideas were widely known even today!

In general, Schenker is special because he knew how to theorize. I have never encountered anyone before or since, at least in the realm of music, with a better sense of the aesthetics of theory-construction. (Part of this, though only part, involves an interest in taking ideas to their logical conclusion -- thus seeking understanding -- as opposed to contenting oneself with the "pragmatic".)

But it's debatable that this should concern the Music department, which is after all not primarily charged with creating new art, but with explaining and making sense of the musical traditions that are already out there

I completely disagree -- or, to the extent I agree, I regard this as an argument against music departments. I reject the ideology of detachment as a virtue -- the idea that it's fine for the "kids" to play, but the job of the "adults" is to study their play patterns.

And notice the devious work being done by the word "already" in your sentence! If artists aren't going to have a primary role in music departments, why on Earth should they cede the right to those departments to decide what is "already" the case?

If mathematics departments are supposed to be about creating mathematics, then music departments should be about creating music. Of course, academia doesn't actually work, so the antecedent is probably false.

(Also, I dislike the framing of "creating new X". As you hopefully realize by now, I don't consider novelty per se -- note the spelling of that Latin phrase -- to be the point. "Continuing to actively create X" would be better.)

"Anti-Schenkerian polemics" are becoming increasingly rare

I see no particular evidence of this -- Gjerdingen doesn't strike me as an exemplar of a dying trend. In any case my concern is not so much explicit polemics as the shifting of the Overton Window to include people like Tymoczko, who would have been happily unthinkable at a place like Princeton back in the old days. This trend is real, and I think inherent to the incentive structure of academia (of which "technically-impressive-looking validations of political correctness and intellectual laziness/complacency" is about as close to a description of the optimization target as one can explicitly articulate).

Why should we even expect the "ascending Prinner" to be as common as the "descending one" within any specific style?

Who knows? Ask Temperley -- he was the one who seemed to think this was some kind of anomaly that Schenkerian theory was obligated to explain (but, somehow, Gjerdingen's theory mysteriously wasn't).

comment by bogus · 2017-02-28T13:55:51.116Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"Diminution" was known, yes, but reversing it as a general analytical method, much less following this to its ultimate conclusion (the Ursatz), certainly was not.

I get your point - and "diminution" obviously stands out as one loosely-'Schenkerian' notion that's especially well attested in old sources - but "certainly" is a strong word! This video. posted as recently as a week ago by the Society for Music Theory, gives an intriguing example of the sort of analysis that could be done in the late 18th century. One could also quibble about the degree to which some of these notions were actually well-known, if with a different terminology: for example, the idea of Stufen (i.e. triads) as generators of musical content is arguably implied in the Rameauvian notion of "fundamental bass" which was at first adopted in a quite subsidiary role, to be used alongside the more traditional notions of thoroughbass and counterpoint. (Even W. A. Mozart used this "Basso fondamentale" in his teaching). And this concurrent use of so-called "harmony" and the earlier thoroughbass and counterpoint seems to only have been lost as an educational practice sometime in the 19th century.

In general, Schenker is special because he knew how to theorize.

I do agree about this, but one problem with Schenker is that he's extremely inconsistent about showing this ability in his writings. I can't help suspecting that one reason why there are so many anti-Schenkerians in even the most "positivistic" music departments has to be the fear of a bait-and-switch argument, where the die-hard Schenkerians "hook" you with sensible talk of diminution and "good abstraction" and the importance of "lines"... but before you know it, they've switched to talking about fluffy notions like "organic coherence" and the "generating power" of the tonic triad, and for all you know they'll soon start to go on and on and on about how the moral decay of Austria totally explains why it lost WWI, and how the sorry state of classical music is somehow relevant to this "decay"!

I reject the ideology of detachment as a virtue -- the idea that it's fine for the "kids" to play, but the job of the "adults" is to study their play patterns.

Making sense of music does not have to involve the philistine "detachment" you seem to fear so much, though. It can be a kind of artistic activity in itself. And indeed, Schenker seems to have been especially aware of this.

If mathematics departments are supposed to be about creating mathematics...

Mathematicians are especially lucky because creating new math is among the best ways, and perhaps the only real way of comprehensively explaining and "curating" previous math work in a way that makes sense to their fellow professionals. People in music departments don't have quite the same luxury! Albeit the practice of "recomposition" can in many ways be illuminating and provide good proofs of concept for theoretical ideas about music, which makes this sort of new compositional activity especially valuable.

...I don't consider novelty per se -- note the spelling of that Latin phrase -- ...

Latin phrase? Now that's the sort of nonsensical linguistic prescriptivism up with which I shall not put!

In any case my concern is not so much explicit polemics as the shifting of the Overton Window to include people like Tymoczko, who would have been happily unthinkable at a place like Princeton back in the old days.

Is Tymoczko's work all that different in character from, e.g. David Lewin's (which famously involved the application of mathematical group theory to explaining chord changes)? When you're aware of previous lines of work and the extent to which Tymoczko is in many ways following in the footsteps of previous theorists, it's really hard to regard him as such a big "shift of the Overton window".

comment by komponisto · 2017-03-02T10:36:50.317Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Stufen (i.e. triads)

This is wrong.

Yes, I realize saying this contradicts what I wrote in Wikipedia a decade ago. But the fact of the matter is that Stufen are more abstract ("spiritual") than that. They are not triads themselves, but rather assignments of functionality to tones (e.g. "root", "third", and "fifth" -- hence the confusion with triads -- but also "second", "fourth", and "seventh", as we see when Schenker uses figured-bass numerals with reference to the root of the Stufe). Their type signature is thus that of a key, or tonality, not a set. As with keys, there exists a natural mapping from Stufen to triads; but the key of C major is distinct from the triad of C major, and likewise, so is the Stufe of C major (which is in fact more similar to the former).

(I believe I have also explained elsewhere the relationship between modes and Stufen: e.g. the Dorian mode corresponds to a II Stufe in major.)

Schenker didn't quite grasp this, unfortunately -- but it follows a lot more closely from his concepts than his concepts do from Rameau's (heavens!).

And let's take a step back, because we're talking past each other in an fairly absurd way. You're basically trying to argue that Schenker's ideas were already understood in the past by people like Rameau; yet even while you're arguing this, I claim that Schenker's ideas are not in fact currently understood by you (or the music theory profession generally, which, again, you do an admirable job of representing, whether or not you're a member of it). So from my perspective, your argument doesn't even type-check, much less convince.

In general, Schenker is special because he knew how to theorize.

I do agree about this, but one problem with Schenker is that he's extremely inconsistent about showing this ability in his writings...the die-hard Schenkerians "hook" you with sensible talk of diminution and "good abstraction" and the importance of "lines"... but before you know it, they've switched to talking about fluffy notions like "organic coherence" and the "generating power" of the tonic triad

I have apparently not succeeded in communicating what I attempted to communicate above.

When I said I had jumped ship from logical positivism to English-professorship, this is what I was talking about. Schenker was doing it right. Those "fluffy notions" -- which are not actually all that fluffy -- are what good discourse on music looks like. It's music, for goodness' sake.. Schenker talks that way because he actually cares -- it's the way one talks when one has something to protect.

I wasn't kidding above, when I said

I no longer think that the "epistemic" or "methodological" criticisms of Schenker ... are of any particular importance.

What makes someone a good theorist is not methodological propriety (which basically means adherence to a particular set of communicational norms -- see how much of an English professor I'm being?), but rather a quality that might be called relentless seeing (by analogy with "original seeing"). It involves things like curiosity, bullet-biting, and abstraction (in the sense of pattern-recognition I discussed above); as well as, of course, caring -- having something to protect, a sense of directionality.

So yes, someone with these qualities is likely to see a connection between the lack of "background structure" (i.e. agency, directionality, "moral sense", etc.) in the "lives of the masses" and the political disasters of their time, if they're inclined to take any interest in politics to begin with.

Schenker's sense of how to theorize is actually better than (any particular version of) his theory. He's the kind of person from whom the right way to learn is by imitation, even more than appropriation of specific ideas. Basically, the postwar anglophone reception of Schenker has it exactly backwards!

Making sense of music does not have to involve the philistine "detachment" you seem to fear so much!

Indeed not, but Schenker is what it looks like when it doesn't, and the Penn School is what it looks like when it does. These are like the two ends of the "philistine detachment" spectrum, according to which others can be measured.

Mathematicians are especially lucky because creating new math is among the best ways, and perhaps the only real way of comprehensively explaining and "curating" previous math work... People in music departments don't have quite the same luxury!

In case you haven't noticed, I deny this.

nonsensical linguistic prescriptivism

There is nothing nonsensical about linguistic prescriptivism! Once again we see the perversity of the academic mindset according to which all explicit normativity is to be banished from life. (Of course, a surfeit of implicit normativity is encouraged, leading to a hypocrisy ratchet.)

When the linguists said "don't confuse us with grammarians", there was nothing in that statement that needed to imply that being a grammarian was somehow wrong, as opposed linguistics simply being a different subject from prescriptive grammar. Yet, that was how everybody seemed to take it, to the point where we now have linguists running around thinking that combatting "prescriptivism" is part of their professional identity. That is nonsensical.

At this point, I'm about ready to declare that grammarianism (linguistic aesthetics, a.k.a. "prescriptivism") is more interesting than linguistics. (By analogy to Schenkerian theory being more interesting than ethnomusicology.)

When you're aware of previous lines of work and the extent to which Tymoczko is in many ways following in the footsteps of previous theorists, it's really hard to regard him as such a big "shift of the Overton window".

Yes, I agree that Tymoczko can reasonably be regarded as a consequence of Lewin! I have therefore updated against Lewin.

It is much, much more obvious that Tymoczko is bad than it ever was that Lewin was good. In retrospect, the reasons Lewin seemed good were largely sociological: he was interested in the right sort of music. But this is only a necessary condition, not a sufficient one, and it is (obviously) not true of Tymoczko.

comment by bogus · 2017-03-02T16:19:50.559Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're basically trying to argue that Schenker's ideas were already understood in the past by people like Rameau

Um, I'm expressly not trying to say this (i.e., that "Schenker's ideas" as a whole were extant), much less about Rameau himself (whose theoretical outlook was in fact quite wrong - his 'fundamental bass' simply wasn't the sort of basic principle of music he thought it was). But the way some elements of Rameau's theory were adopted practically (by a comparative elite of folks with pre-existing expertise about music, not the middle-class pure amateurs who mostly stuck with Rameau's simplified treatment in its entirety) is rather more interesting.

This is also why the distinction between "triad" and "modality" is rather beside the point, in practical usage. You can hopefully see how the "modal" point of view practically follows from the "triad as a generator of musical content", just as it follows from Schenker's presentation. Indeed, jazz theorists have rediscovered this link in a largely independent fashion, which is why they like to talk about modes so much.

As for whether Schenkerian theory as a whole was "already understood in the past", one would have to answer in the negative, simply because of its reliance on a clever yet remarkably successful synthesis of 18th-c. (see above) and 19th-c. ideas (organicism, complex "form", music as an emotionally-connoted 'journey' across distant tonal areas, etc.) that could not realistically be developed before the late-19th or early-20th c. That much is clear enough. But this also makes the theory historically dependent in a rather unorthodox way for a figure on a par with Darwin! (For instance, Schenker's ideas in and of themselves have little to say about orchestration and texture. If Schenker's works were all we had to go on, we would never know to hear, say, the start of KV332(I), 1st mvmt., as much more than stereotypically "pretty" music prolonging the tonic sonority - and would entirely miss the veritable "journey" involved in the truly remarkable variety of textures and styles Mozart lets us sample in these measures! (And arguably in the entire movement. Also, this is a brief description and probably fails to convey the real mastery in what Mozart's doing - which requires a fairly in-depth knowledge of these "styles" and their extra-musical implications to really appreciate.) This clarifies as well why I am somewhat skeptical of claims about "the right sort of music" to be interested in scholarly. If all that means is "music that a Schenker-like outlook happens to jive with", that can justify a purely artistic choice, not so much a broadly stated claim about what theories are "good" or "bad" for the development of art music.)

Those "fluffy notions" -- which are not actually all that fluffy -- are what good discourse on music looks like. ... it's the way one talks when one has something to protect.

I definitely agree about this, but I'm not quite sure about the implication that non-Schenkerian theorists could not possibly have 'something to protect' of their own. (It's very possible that you're right about most of the 'Penn School', though!) Of course, their underlying interests might not be coincident with the ones Schenker had. They needn't even do em any good, especially in the longer run - as arguably shown by the case of Rameau, who is on record as stating that he cared a lot more about his theoretical pursuits than the (rather impressive) music he actually composed!

There is nothing nonsensical about linguistic prescriptivism!

(Sure, but the "nonsense" I was talking about is specifically the prescriptivist tendency to take rules from a radically different language, and one that has been dead for thousands of years, viz. Latin - whether involving lexicon, syntax or grammar - and apply them wholesale to English. In this case, using the form "per say" has the benefit of adding some transparency about what the idiom actually means - something like "(just) in accordance with what's being said; as an aside" in a way that just parroting per se doesn't, unless you have studied Latin before!)

comment by gjm · 2017-03-06T09:30:17.302Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

what the idiom actually means -- something like "(just) in accordance with what's being said; as an aside"

But that isn't at all what the idiom actually means. Well, maybe there's been a shift I'm unaware of and that's what many people mean by it now, and on any particular occasion it may be used or abused in any way its user fancies. But what the Latin means, and what the phrase has always meant in English use when I've seen it, is more like "as such" or "in itself". It doesn't have anything to do with asides, and while I can see the connection between "just in accordance with what's being said" and the actual meaning it would never occur to me to express it in such a way.

(I'd thought komponisto's remark was referring back to a recent instance of "per say" in one of your comments, but I can't find it now. Maybe it was someone else, or maybe you corrected it, or maybe I just imagined the whole thing. The comment I thought it was in has been edited but now doesn't contain either "per say" or "per se".)

comment by komponisto · 2017-03-06T07:10:14.764Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is also why the distinction between "triad" and "modality" is rather beside the point, in practical usage.

Not at all. It strongly implicates the distinction between the chord model and the line model of musical data; thinking of the Stufe as a triad has the severely unfortunate effect of encouraging the chord model. This is why almost no one has noticed that Schenkerian theory, like Westergaardian theory, uses the line model. It is for this reason that I am so insistent on the distinction between Stufen and triads, and what you call the "'modal' point of view".

You're basically trying to argue that Schenker's ideas were already understood in the past by people like Rameau

Um, I'm expressly not trying to say this (i.e., that "Schenker's ideas" as a whole were extant

The phrase "as a whole" is absent from my statement. You were trying to argue that some of Schenker's ideas were extant, and I was disputing this in the important cases that were mentioned, in particular the Stufe as generator of content. While it was certainly related to things that had been said earlier by others (including Rameau), neither Schenker's particular idea of Stufe nor, indeed, his idea of content were part of the standard music theory he inherited; had they been, no one would have been struck by the originality and importance of his Harmony.

In retrospect, of course, it is nearly always possible to trace the ancestry even of original ideas; and, in fact, contrary to the current "historical" Zeitgeist which has so strongly influenced your comments, I think this is exactly how earlier ideas should be looked at -- from the perspective of their later descendants (provided the latter are actually a development or improvement of the earlier, which is markedly the case here). However, the consequence of this in this case is that, to whatever extent (e.g.) Rameau anticipated Schenker, it is a credit to Rameau, not a diminishment of Schenker.

But this also makes the theory historically dependent in a rather unorthodox way for a figure on a par with Darwin!

The reason Schenker is on a par with Darwin is not because of the novelty of his ideas; it is because of their fundamentality. As with Darwin's ideas in the case of biology, Schenker's ideas in music are a starting point, a core background assumption, for any reasonable view of music after him.

For instance, Schenker's ideas in and of themselves have little to say about orchestration and texture. If Schenker's works were all we had to go on, we would never know to hear, say, the start of KV332(I), 1st mvmt., as much more than stereotypically "pretty" music

This is a perfect example of what I am talking about when I say that Schenker's ideas have not been understood.

I could just reply by pointing out that the first sentence is simply false. Read the Ninth Symphony monograph; you will find (just for instance) Schenker arguing at length against Wagner's re-orchestrations of Beethoven. Already at that early stage, Schenker seemed to be under the impression that a lot of specific points about orchestration and texture followed from his ideas.

But really, the correct response is of a more general, meta-level character. The source of this type of complaint is a basic failure to understand what it is that one is supposed to be learning when one reads a music theorist -- most of all Schenker. Even if Schenker had not bothered to spell out the specific orchestrational or textural consequences of his ideas on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or any other particular work, even if his only surviving writings were those devoted to the general presentation of his "theory" ( Harmony, Counterpoint, and Free Composition), it would still be entirely wrong to make the claim that you have, whether in general or about K. 332 in particular.

Your criticism is basically analogous to telling a nearsighted person that, if their eyeglasses were "all they had to go on", they would never notice the beauties of the landscape. Well, of course, but eyeglasses are never all that a given individual has to go on; they also have the entire human visual system and cognitive apparatus, not to mention a lifetime's worth of experience that will have imprinted itself upon these latter. The problem is that they're nearsighted, and a distant landscape will, by default, appear as a nondescript blur, limiting their ability to make use of their interpretive and appreciative faculties. Hence, what they need most urgently are corrective lenses. Not a verbal description of the landscape, a textbook on natural history, or research in computer vision that might lead to commercially useful animal- and plant-classification algorithms.

Schenkerian theory is a framework. By default, people do not perceive music; they perceive only a distant, distorted shadow that hints at what music might be. A good music theory is like a corrective lens that allows them to perceive music in its full, vivid glory. The difference between perceiving a piece of music only superficially, as opposed to "all the way through" to the Urlinie, is like the difference between seeing a blurry smear of color, on the one hand, and a picturesque panorama of detail, on the other.

This isn't a perfect analogy, but I hope it conveys something of the reason that "Schenker has little to say about orchestration or texture (or rhythm or ...)" is just the wrong type of criticism of Schenker, even if were true (which it virtually never is). If you learn to hear music the way that Schenkerian theory aims to teach (as in, hearing this way is a skill), you notice more about a piece of music, not less.

There seems to be a certain kind of personality trait, a certain kind of over-concrete literal-mindedness, that prevents people from understanding this, in the specific case of Schenkerian theory, and from expecting this kind of thing of a theory in general. What is remarkable about Schenker is that he possessed the kind of personality that did expect this of a theory, and, as a result, presented a theory of this kind. This is what I mean by he knew how to theorize.

One could also perhaps make an analogy to programming. A theory of music should, in fact, be something like a programming language for music. Saying something of the form "this theory has nothing to say about orchestration (etc.)" is like criticizing a programming language on the grounds that it lacks good libraries. This is a superficial criticism, because if the core of the language is well designed, good libraries can always be written. Similarly, if you have a good theory of music, understanding the various details that might be involved in a given piece of music, such as orchestration, texture, or any number of other things, will take care of itself in the hands of a dedicated listener.

Sure, but the "nonsense" I was talking about is specifically the prescriptivist tendency to take rules from a radically different language, and one that has been dead for thousands of years, viz. Latin - whether involving lexicon, syntax or grammar - and apply them wholesale to English

That's not what was going on here. I wasn't doing something like advocating against "split infinitives" on the grounds that infinitives are a single word in Latin (actually they're a single word in English as well and do not include the word to, a point that few understand but that can be confirmed by comparison with German, where the English preposition to corresponds to the German preposition zu, not to the infinitive ending -en).

Rather, I was correcting apparent ignorance of an actual piece of Latin being used in English. It is a feature of literate discourse that phrases from other languages are used; in such a speech community, one is expected to either have familiarity with the languages, or to learn the foreign vocabulary items (ahem) ad hoc. Something like "per say" is the result of somebody unfamiliar with the phrase in Latin misconstruing it as a phrase in English; this is simply a failure of literacy, nothing more -- which can, of course, be easily corrected (even without studying the rest of Latin). As you may be able to gather, I am rather big on literacy. (As I have already indicated, I am not a fan of Richard Taruskin's version of music history, but his framing of the nature of art music as being basically about a kind of literacy is something I find more or less spot on.)

comment by arundelo · 2017-02-15T15:03:48.480Z · score: 0 (1 votes) · LW · GW

a participatory culture makes the notion of a skill-level hierarchy more apparent and well-defined

Not so. Fetishizing extreme 'skill', virtuosity, stardom etc. is a marker of a consumer culture, not a participatory one.

For one thing, fetishizing skill is a fairly small component of contemporary popular music culture. For another, that's different from the skill-level hierarchy komponisto is talking about. As a musician (disclosure!), I expect a musician's judgment of another musician's skill level to be more accurate and finer-grained than the judgment of a non-musician.

comment by bogus · 2017-02-15T17:09:43.695Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For one thing, fetishizing skill is a fairly small component of contemporary popular music culture. ...As a musician (disclosure!), I expect a musician's judgment of another musician's skill level to be more accurate and finer-grained than the judgment of a non-musician.

That's only because contemporary popular/consumer culture has gone even further on that same slippery slope, in allowing the sheer force of familiarity and public image to substitute for even the most trifling amount of actual skill. But when a musician 'judges' the skill-level of a fellow participating musician in any contingent context, she is not thereby establishing or contributing to a single "well-defined" hierarchy of skill, nor is she making that hierarchy "more apparent" in any real sense. That's entirely consumer culture's doing.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-06T04:10:47.684Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

These are good points. I agree with you that we can view songs within a "song-space", but I think that specific points (songs) of a certain value or effect on humans are actually very sparse in the song-space. I can strum a few random chords, record it, and call it a song, but that is very different from the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction". If you take all the factors that comprise a song, it is only very specific combinations that turn out to be songs that have a strong effect on people. So the song-space would be large, but the specific points would be limited and sparse.

I think you bring up a good problem that it is hard to make judgments based on observations currently in music--it's hard to say for sure while new music is still being created. I do think that all music is closer than we think to completion, with the current popular genres of rap, pop, electronic etc being the final genres to be substantially completed. I predict that in the next 5-10 years, it will become more evident that music as a whole has reached a point where all of the most significant songs are in the past. Only time will tell to some extent. Even then I think it won't be clear to most people until we have experienced decades of lack of musical progress.

Thanks for your thoughts by the way.

comment by Hal · 2017-02-08T03:20:43.079Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Right, that's a good point you're making about most points in song-space being worthless, and it maybe even shows that the multidimensional-space way of looking at things isn't really appropriate in this situation. Since I can't think of anything better, though, we might as well just keep talking about a "sparsely populated" space.

I think that distinction comes to core of the problem here: we're talking about a hugely vast space, where a hugely vast proportion of points in it are inconsequential. There's a battle going on between those intuitions of "hugeness;" for me, the space wins out, for you, the sparseness. It's probably not possible to reconcile these intuitions easily, as they're not immediately based on anything concrete. As unfortunate as the phrase is, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree (unless I'm totally wrong here, which is a possibility). For what it's worth, I'm less confident now in my opinion that music genres like "classical" and jazz aren't close to being filled up.

You're making a bit of a different point in this comment, though, which I think it's important to clarify. It seems to me to be far more likely that a specific genre that has existed for decades or centuries is filling up, than that music as a whole is anywhere close to completion. The two are very different claims.

You mention rap and electronica as being some of the "final genres" to be substantially completed, but think of where they came from, and why they are the most recent genres. Rap (or hip-hop, not really sure which is the more accurate term for what I'm talking about) came out of a period of profound social change, while electronica is only possible due to technological advances in the last 30 or so years. I don't think anyone would have been able to predict Skrillex, or anything like it, in the '60s or maybe even the '70s (though I'm unconfident about exactly when because my history is lacking).

Doesn't this suggest that it's most prudent to "expect the unexpected" when it comes to musical progress? I only gave a couple of examples, but I'm sure that more exist; generally, it seems like the emergence of new genres of music is a much less predictable process than the creation of songs within a given genre. You'd need quite convincing evidence to suggest that this time is different (barring some kind of civilizational collapse or "end of history"-style cultural equilibrium, of course).

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-08T05:34:28.296Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Even though we are of slightly different opinions, I'm glad we are on the same page of what I was trying to discuss and get thoughts on--this has been good. You're right that the sparseness I'm proposing is hard to judge and you can't break down the argument further. My perception comes from my experience in attempting songwriting in the genre of rock where I felt like after spending many hours songwriting that I could understand and perceive the boundaries of the genre/niche at an intuitive level from much trial-and-error--which isn't an argument to convince you or someone else (of course), but just to explain to you why it seems self-evident to me that the songs are very sparse in the space. That in addition to observing the factors I had mentioned before (limited period of best work for each band, declining output of distinct new styles/bands, etc).

Yes, you are right that there is a big difference between addressing older genres like classical and jazz vs current genres, but applying the same concept has led me to believe that the remaining genres will soon be completed as well--which I will do my best to explain, bear with me.

With rock music, much of my experience comes from time spent songwriting and exploring the niche, but also from observing the progression of rock music. One of the simplest factors to see in progression of the opening up of new styles in rock was changes / advances in production styles. So in the 50s, songs by rock acts like Elvis, Buddy Holly, etc were all recorded in Mono sound. That proceeded into the Beatles early work (eg "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"). Mono sound gave songs a distinct sound different than stereo sound, but was also more limited in general. Phil Spector's Wall of Sound technique did allow complexity in Mono (as best used by the Beach Boys in Pet Sounds) but it did not have as much potential as stereo in general. The Beatles then started recording in stereo sound. Partially because of the new larger stereo space, and partially just in tandem development, they (and others) opened up the door for much more varied sounds and instrumentation and styles. Led Zeppelin and early metal figured out how to record heavier sounding drums and fuller distorted guitars. The 80s brought reverb (big room sound) and synthesizers and different guitar sounds into rock (Van Halen etc). Nirvana's Nevermind's production helped usher in even heavier drums and bigger distorted guitar alternative rock sound that persisted into grunge and post-grunge sounds. In the 2000s, indie rock like Animal Collective, TV on the Radio, etc explored additional sonic textures, combining distorted guitar with heavy reverb and big spaces (along with many bands who pulled from sonic and production styles of previous decades within an indie rock sound). But from my judgment, 2009 was the last peak of new distinct indie rock bands and sounds (it was starting to decline after that).

In a way, the simplest way to view running out of rock music was to see that there was no further places to go with production techniques or the sonic environment or instrumentation of a song (in a distinct way). At the same time, Indie rock in the 2000s was more democratized than rock ever was before because technology and the internet allowed anyone to write and record music. But I think that democratization allows completion to happen at a faster rate.

In a similar way, rap appears to have maxed out production advances and is starting to run out of distinct sonic textures. Current rap, electronic, and pop music use similar modern production elements that are different than what was 10 years ago or in the 90s or in the 80s. It takes examination of production and the progress up until now, but it seems evident to me that there isn't going to be another large production breakthrough. That in tandem with the fact that current rap, electronic, and pop (or any music) is more democratized as ever, with millions of people trying to create the next great style of song, and it seems likely that these genres will be substantially completed in the next 5-10 years as well (somewhat using rock completion as a metric).

I agree that it is difficult to explain or prove, because most of the evidence that I'm explaining is really a complex picture of what I see as self-evident but can't be broken down further into a simpler argument. We probably will have to agree to disagree, but I'm glad you brought it down to this level of detail. Thanks!

comment by CronoDAS · 2017-02-06T02:59:44.415Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, if you can write great-sounding music in the style of Bach or some other long dead composer, that doesn't make you as great as them, that makes you an unoriginal hack. (I can solve lots of math problems that Newton never could because I've read textbooks written long after he died, but that doesn't make me a better mathematician...)

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-06T03:56:59.715Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yea exactly, that's the point I'm trying to get at. It seems like there is a limit to the possibilities of "great" contributions to any field, and if that is so then it makes sense that eventually each field will be completed. Completion is the point where humanity has completed every field and discovered all knowledge (and could be viewed as the biggest goal for humanity in a way).

comment by siIver · 2017-02-05T21:20:37.234Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, there is a provably finite possibility space for stories. You only have so many ways to arrange letters in a script. The question is whether it's meaningful.

To use some completely made-up numbers, I think the current possibility space for movies produced by the bottom 80% of people with the current style may be 90% covered. The space for the top 2%, on the other hand, is probably covered for less than 0.1% (and I resisted putting in more zeros there).

To get more concrete, I'll name some pieces (which I avoided doing in my initial post). Take Game of Thrones. It's a huge deal – why? Well, because there isn't really anything like it, But when you get rid of all the typical story tropes, like main characters with invulnerability, predictable plot progressions, a heroic minority lucking out against an evil majority, typical villains, etc etc, not only does the result get better, the possibility space actually widens. (I'm not saying scripts of this quality don't exist, but it seems to be the only show where a great script and a huge budget and a competent team came together. There could be thousands of shows like this, and there is just one).

Or take the movie Being John Malkovich. Basically, there is one supernatural element placed in an otherwise scientifically operating world, and you have a bunch of character who act like normal humans, meaning largely selfish and emotionally driven, acting over that element. Just thinking about how much you could do following that formula opens up a large area in that seems to be largely untouched.

I think we're shooting at Pluto over and over again while (for the most part) ignoring the rest of the universe. And it still works, because production quality and effects are still improving.

(edited)

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-05T21:51:53.786Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting points, yea you're getting at the heart of what I'm trying to figure out. I think you're right, that it's easy to see how the story possibilities that use the simplest story types (Hero's Journey, etc) have possibly been ~90% completed.

But what makes you think that more complex story types allow many more possibilities? Along the lines of your point, Game of Thrones is a fantasy epic with a much darker tone that breaks storytelling conventions, but wouldn't any fantasy epic series with similar attributes in the future seem less groundbreaking than Game of Thrones? I agree that you could apply similar attributes to a Sci Fi epic series, or another type of series, but it seems like that type of story would begin to get old in the near future as well. On the television front, there are so many shows being created that it's hard to see how they can keep being groundbreaking.

With arty / more complex films like Being John Malkovich or Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine (I'm a fan of those Kaufman movies), does complexity lead to more possibilities of these types of movies or less? There seems to be a slowdown in more arty / complex stories this decade (than compared to the 90's for example).

With film and television creation being more democratized than ever, I don't see a reason why the creation of these type of films would slow down apart from the remaining stories requiring more complexity and skill to write than ever. I think we agree on the necessity of higher skill in writing currently. But, it seems to me that a slowdown in the category of non-traditional or unique stories would mean that we are running out of those story possibilities as well.

comment by siIver · 2017-02-06T02:33:16.097Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But what makes you think that more complex story types allow many more possibilities?

Isn't that an inherent property of complexity? A larger set of elements -> a larger powerset of elements -> more possibilities. In fact the size of the powerset grows at 2^x. I think a second game of thrones would be less groundbreaking, but doesn't have to be worse... and the same goes for the 1000th GoT.

There seems to be a slowdown in more arty / complex stories this decade (than compared to the 90's for example).

With film and television creation being more democratized than ever, I don't see a reason why the creation of these type of films would slow down apart from the remaining stories requiring more complexity and skill to write than ever.

I don't know as much as you about the industry. These sound worrisome.

I still think it is more likely that there is another reason (not that bold of an assumption) than that we really run out of complex things to write, because that just doesn't seem to be true looking at how complexity works and how much seems to be doable just by tweaking those more complex pieces we have. Adaption is another great example.

But, I might be suffering from bias here, because I much prefer the world where I'm right to the one where I'm wrong.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-06T04:54:17.229Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes I see what you're saying. I think a larger set of elements does not mean that all combination of those elements "works" as a movie story. It seems better to view possibilities as limited and sparse distinct points. A movie like Star Wars requires the correct combination of thousands of factors, and if you only had the right balance of half of the factors then there wouldn't necessarily be another workable story there.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that there seems to be a certain number of distinct point possibilities of movie stories that isn't directly a factor of the set of elements involved.

I agree with you though, I'm not sure there is an iron-clad proof of this idea. I think it being proved right will depend on reaching a point where many people start to view our greatest works as being behind us, and wonder why that is the case.

comment by Lumifer · 2017-02-06T01:17:09.164Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Take Game of Thrones. It's a huge deal – why?

I always thought it's because of blood and boobs. No?

comment by CronoDAS · 2017-02-06T02:15:09.420Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Nah, there are lots of other ways to see blood and boobs. And it was a big deal as a book series too.

comment by gjm · 2017-02-10T14:03:15.531Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think you're right, but it's worth noting that being a socially acceptable source of blood and boobs could go a long way.

comment by Lumifer · 2017-02-15T18:12:15.063Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Nominated for the "Best Thread I've Read This Year" award.

comment by philh · 2017-02-07T15:10:53.042Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In a similar way, there is a building popular consensus that Hollywood is not pursuing original ideas as much anymore and is relying on rebooting old stories and franchises.

I'm not sure this is a recent thing. For example, I think it's relevant that if you look at the IMDB top 250, you see an awful lot of sequels and adaptations, including 9 out of the top 10. (The exception is Pulp Fiction; in the top 25, we also get Inception, Seven Samurai, Se7en and The Usual Suspects).

comment by satt · 2017-02-07T21:16:35.507Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Delightfully, both the Internet Archive and IMDb are venerable enough that we can see how IMDb's top 250 looked 13 years ago. That lets us do a rough test of whether sequel 'n' adaptation spam clogging the chart is a new phenomenon.

IMDb's top 10, as of June 6, 2004:

  1. Godfather, The (1972)
  2. Shawshank Redemption, The (1994)
  3. Godfather: Part II, The (1974)
  4. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The (2003)
  5. Schindler's List (1993)
  6. Shichinin no samurai (1954)
  7. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The (2002)
  8. Casablanca (1942)
  9. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The (2001)
  10. Star Wars (1977)

Of these, I think 8 are sequels or adaptations (the original two are Shichinin no samurai and Star Wars).

Adding the next 15 films, things are slightly more complicated: Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, and Amélie look pretty clearly original, but Raiders of the Lost Ark is more arguable, 'cause apparently it's an uncredited ripoff of Secret of the Incas. That makes 7½ originals out of 25.

Comparing to now, we've gone from 2/10 and 7½/25 originals to 1/10 and 5/25. That does suggest a recent trend towards more sequels and adaptations, but there were already a lot in '04.

Edit, 4 days later: see below for some corrections.

comment by philh · 2017-02-08T10:33:15.389Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Good thinking! I agree this is evidence that the phenomenon is stronger today than in the past.

I think the 2004 numbers are actually higher than you suggest. Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo is the third in the Man With No Name trilogy, but North by Northwest and Memento seem to be original. I'm also not sure how to count Casablanca, which apparently was based on an unproduced play.

comment by satt · 2017-02-11T14:50:43.883Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think the 2004 numbers are actually higher than you suggest. Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo is the third in the Man With No Name trilogy, but North by Northwest and Memento seem to be original.

Oops, thanks for picking me up on those. You're correct about IBIBIC and North by Northwest (maybe I mixed up the second with Psycho?). I'm not sure about Memento. On first Google it looked like Jonathan Nolan had written a short story with a similar premise, and that his brother Christopher had developed the film from the same premise, but without adapting the short story in the usual sense. Further reading convinced me that, actually, Christopher had adapted the film loosely from the short story, so I counted it as an adaptation.

Now I look a third time, I see from some guy's student paper that the film [edit: allegedly] wasn't adapted from the short story after all:

However, in an interview on the DVD, Chris Nolan reveals an interesting fact: the short story was not completed until well after filming of the movie had started. His brother Jonathan explained the idea to him on a cross-country roadtrip and granted him permission to extend it into a film. Here we see that "Memento Mori" is not the primary, hypotext we have been assuming. Instead, both the short story and the film are different readings or interpretations of Jonathan Nolan's original idea, as explained during that car ride.

Maybe I'll just give Memento a half point!

[Edit: forgot to acknowledge you on Casablanca. I decided it wasn't original because of the unproduced play you mention, but since the play wasn't produced my decision is kind of arguable.]

comment by sleepingthinker · 2017-02-07T21:33:58.756Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if you look at it most stories since prehistory have a similar structure. Guys like Vladimir Propp or Joseph Campbell analyzed old stories and came up with basic elements that almost all of the different stories shared.

George Lucas was actually inspired to create Star Wars by reading Campbell's "A Hero with a Thousand Faces".

This shows that all stories share a common structure, so it is hard to be totally original. However the structure is so versatile that it allows a huge number of different stories to come out and seem fresh and original.

We have to separate this from what Hollywood is producing today. Studios have gotten lazy and are just chasing after the big bucks. So instead of taking a risk on something new, they instead invest in a plethora of sequels, reboots and sequels to reboots. I think that's where the problem is, not in being able to come up with anything new.

comment by stephen_s · 2017-02-08T00:00:54.019Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yea, I'm a fan of Joseph Campbell's ideas, and of course the great monomyth movies (Star Wars, LOTR, The Matrix, Harry Potter, etc). I agree that every story relies on structures that other stories use and nothing is fully original. Star Wars is a great example because it borrowed not only from the monomyth story, but from westerns, samurai movies, WWII movies, space operas, high fantasy (LOTR), science fiction epics (Dune), etc. Star Wars was great because it was really the perfection of the space opera genre, just like The Matrix was the ideal cyberpunk movie.

What I'm trying to get at is that on a long enough timescale, there is a limit to the distinct movie stories we can create. A great story like Star Wars is really like a complex puzzle, with hundreds of factors working together to make it a great movie. Do you think there are an infinite number of potential movies as unique/distinct/fresh as Star Wars or do you think the number is limited? Once I believed that the number is limited, then I started to wonder about how many distinct/fresh stories are left. And then I started to think of the possibility that perhaps movie studios are not putting money into trying to make the next new Star Wars or The Matrix because no one is writing those scripts, because there actually isn't a new Star Wars or The Matrix to create. In other words, the decline in new properties made more sense to me in terms of my idea on completion than that the studios have just gotten lazy or more conservative (which could be true as well).

The more in depth explanations in other replies are a better justification of the idea, this is more just the observation in relation to movies. Hopefully you get what I'm trying to get at. It is conceptual and not easy to explain, for sure.

comment by lifelonglearner · 2017-02-06T17:08:25.480Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Unsure about the argument that people today just aren't measuring up to the most acclaimed artists of previous generations. There's probably some survivorship bias there, where only the most extraordinary of each generation survives, meaning our yardsticks from the past were the very very best they had to offer.

So I don't think it's too big of a problem that most people today don't measure up to them.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-02-06T08:45:05.555Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hollywood films cost a lot of money and running new films is risky. It's less risk to invest in franchises or stories that are already known to work.