‘Musical innovation': why new music is not like a new vacuum cleaner

Musicians are sometimes described – in the media, and by themselves – as ‘innovative’. Musical innovators are progressing their genre, it is sometimes said. Expanding its horizons, making it better. They are ‘advancing their art’.

This kind of talk makes me uneasy. Advancing the art – to where? From where? Our talk about music has, at least since the 19th century, tended to take this teleological stance on music. It’s progressing, is the idea: it’s being transformed from a state of embarrassing primitiveness to something altogether better. We are much better off, musically-speaking, than those unfortunate figures of the past, who had to make do without all the new musical resources that we are lucky enough to have at our disposal today. Music history is linear, in this view; it has all been leading up to here, to the creative genius of today. Of course they’re ‘innovators’. What else could they be?

But I don’t think this is the right way to talk about music at all. Music isn’t linear, for one thing; it branches off every which way – and this isn’t just a feature of modernity, either. Western music histories have ironed over the interesting furrows and bumps, humps and hollows of our musical past, giving us a misleading idea that there has been some inexorable, logical musical force pushing its way to the very point on which we stand. We have a tendency to talk about art in quasi-technological terms, as though music could be looked at from a safe distance, as though it were a new vacuum cleaner that had just rolled off the conveyor belt; as though, brow furrowed, finger on chin, we could poke it with spanners, scribble on clipboards and declare that, yes, Music 2.0 does the job demonstrably better than Music 1.9 did.

Of course, innovation doesn’t have to mean progression towards a well-understood end. It can just mean doing something new. And I’m definitely not implying that creative musicians don’t deserve our praise and admiration. But I think we need to be clear about the sense in which music, or something like it, could be ‘innovative’. Music isn’t a matter of producing better artefacts or tools, to be examined and tested like vacuum cleaners. It’s a matter of expression – it’s a matter of teaching us something new about ourselves. It holds a candle up to the world and illuminates some forgotten, dusty niche for us in a way that we haven’t seen it before. It discloses the world, that is; it doesn’t just mine it for resources, to advance its own cause. Being musically ‘innovative’ – advancing, progressing the cause – just misses the point.

A ‘musical genius’ didn’t always have the connotations that it has now. When it was first introduced in the 18th century, with the generation of Rousseau, the term meant somebody who was adept at finding new modes of emotional expression. It was only with Schenker, much later on, that it came to indicate some purely technical musical faculty that had nothing to do with expression. I think we would be well-served to step off the conveyor belt of ‘musical innovation’ and take a leaf out of Rousseau’s book. Maybe then we’ll finally move away from the ‘Dyson view’ of music.

4 comments to ‘Musical innovation': why new music is not like a new vacuum cleaner

  • Pablo Silva

    Hi!

    I just read your post, and certainly agree with your stance on ‘musical innovation’. I have thought myself a bit about these same issues, as I’m working on a related subject for my PhD dissertation… Wouldn’t you think that up to a certain point, the language that the avant-garde of the post-WWII generation created/developed to talk about music, which so tries to raise music composition to a formal, quasi-scientific objective level, has fostered this ‘musical innovation’ arms race?

    I’d love to hear your opinion on this point.

    Regards

  • admin

    Hi Pablo,

    yes, absolutely. The idea that music is about ‘getting better’ has been around a long time; Schoenberg said that the 12-tone system would ‘ensure the dominance of German music for the next hundred years’, or words to that effect. The idea is that one-upmanship is the name of the game. It’s about being better than the last guy, rather than saying something new; the focus is shifted to technical expertise. Heidegger would say it’s all part of the Zeitgeist of modernity as well. Lots of possible explanations, I think!

    J

  • Pablo Silva

    Hi Jenny!

    Believe it or not, I only saw your answer today… and I’m sorry about that, since I’m very interested in talking further about this.

    The issue we mention here seems to me essential, these days, for a reevaluation of the work at least a significant portion of twentieth-century composers. The more I read and look into my own subject, the more I’m convinced of the existence of a very big amount of what I would informally call Bad Philosophy underlying many of the writings of some of the key figures in the last century’s avant-gardes. Unexamined premises, way too convenient unassailable conclusions, a big dose of teleology, and a rather astonishing amount of arrogance seem to me to be all over very respected and fundamental texts written then, and still now. All to try to prove the historical inevitability of certain technical choices.

    Not that I’m expecting musicians to be impeccable philosophers, but still…

    Regards

  • admin

    Hi Pablo,

    I totally agree. There’s a lot of avant-garde arrogance floating around. But I think it’s important to remember that a lot of twentieth-century composers have been done a disservice by the predominantly ‘formalist’ tendencies in the aesthetics literature, and in the popular literature (and journalism) surrounding classical music. The assumption is that these composers are just interested in formal innovation, not in expression and in saying something compelling, which I think gets them entirely wrong. It even gets Schoenberg wrong! He didn’t just explore serialism for the sake of doing something technically innovative; he thought that it would reconfigure what we thought to be aesthetically compelling. So there was still a ‘Romantic’ motivation behind his work, insofara as he sought to express something in a new way.

    I think that the current empirical drive in aesthetics is promising, because it represents a turn back to how musical experience actually goes, as opposed to focusing on what innovations are in the score, detached from its reception.

    J

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