Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Problems with “Evolution” Narratives

A side note before I get into this post: I’ve recently received some unfortunate medical news that will probably affect my ability to update this blog. In a previous post, I’ve mentioned that I have cancer. A few weeks ago, we learned that it has spread to my brain, and that I’ll be undergoing full brain radiation (starting this afternoon!), which will affect my short-term memory and ability to concentrate. In the future, I hope to work on writing with the extra mental challenges, but in the meantime, even just finding out about the cancer spreading has made it difficult to focus.

…Which is why I haven’t updated for a while, despite there being plenty of musical misconceptions to clear up. I’ve actually had two potential posts on my agenda for over a week: a take-down of a “new” (actually just recirculating) theory about Beethoven’s infamous Immortal Beloved, and a Twitter conversation I had last week about whether classical music can be considered political (my stance: Of course it’s political!). I’m still planning to post about those, as I think they’re both interesting and important. But what ultimately motivated me to update the blog today was a cartoon:

“The Evolution of Classical Composition” is as adorable as it is problematic!
Note: The panels read down first, then right. Click link for larger version.
Source: http://classic-jenny.tumblr.com

I encountered this comic on Classic FM’s Facebook page, and the comments are disturbing. There are two main interpretations of Classic Jenny’s comic, and honestly neither sits well with me. The first is a more positive spin—that over time, the rules have loosened, allowing for more freedom of expression and more abstract thought (and inviting different types of people into the composition process).

The second interpretation is much more common among Classic FM fans, based on the comments on the Facebook post—that this comic depicts the decline in music education over time. That interpretation, coupled with the conspicuously non-white, potentially non-male figure in the final panel, makes for a terribly racist statement, and I sincerely hope that’s not what the artist intended. (EDIT: It isn't. See addendum below.) Yet that’s the way many people are comfortable reading it.

I’m only going to spend one paragraph discussing why the second interpretation is offensive and why many classical music fans would be conditioned to see the comic that way: In other posts (here and here) I’ve pointed out how Classic FM uses social media to make their listeners feel superior about their choice of music. They’ve been primed with an “older = better” mentality, so even someone who expresses their love for the Romantic period (ostensibly depicted in the third panel) would still be inclined to think the first panel depicts an ideal that we’ve fallen away from. That desire for flattery (“I’m special because I appreciate the old stuff!”) is so powerful that it causes many to not even see the racist implications of the final panel—and honestly, that’s me being optimistic. I’m just hoping they overlooked it, rather than outright agreeing that music is worse when women and people of color are involved.

Yet the first interpretation, the one I hope the artist was trying to make, has many problems that may be less obvious. There are nit-picky issues: The cartoonist depicts each panel as a century, but the dates don’t really line up. The dialogue doesn’t even line up for the rough “Baroque-Classical-Romantic-Modern” breakdown she’s alluding to. In the third panel, the Liszt-like figure is questioning tonality between 1800 and 1900, but most of that century still operated in a tonal idiom (that is, the idea that pitches relate to each other in a particular way, with some pitches more stable than others. Tonality makes a scale feel “finished” when you get back to the original pitch). It’s hard to pinpoint when tonality “broke down;” it’s fair to say that Liszt stretched it, but most associate the atonality and the “emancipation of the dissonance” with Arnold Schoenberg and his students in the early 20th century. As for the “What is music?” question in the final panel, that’s more associated with avant garde scene in the mid-20th century, with ideas like musique concrete and John Cage’s 4’33”.

In the cartoonist’s commitment to making each panel trim the dialogue of the previous one, the second panel is rendered nonsensical: “What is the most effective method of texture in tonal music?” In music, texture refers to how the different voices/parts/lines of music are combined. There’s plenty of jargon associated with this concept—if the parts all move together, chord by chord, it’s homorhythmic; if there’s a single melody with chordal accompaniment, it’s homophonic; if the different parts have independent melodies that intertwine, it’s polyphonic (which is mentioned in the first panel); and so on, causing a lot of confusion, even for music majors. When I write program notes for people who may not have musical training, I describe a texture as “thick” or “thin” based on how much activity there is and whether you can hear individual lines. So, “method of texture” as a phrase doesn’t really work (it’s trimmed from “method of voicing through polyphonic texture”), and there is no one “effective” method or texture for everything. The dialogue sounds nice and technical, but it’s meaningless.

But for me, the problems start with the second word of the title: “evolution.” It has nothing to do with science vs. religion or anything like that! I specialize in how music history was written in the 19th century, right as Darwin’s ideas took hold and revolutionized the way people understood history. There was a common misconception (which unfortunately persists even today) that evolution works toward something, that change is necessarily progress. That’s not how evolution in nature works; it’s an unguided process, and “improvements” are actually advantageous adaptions that might not be useful beyond their immediate environment. Music, however, is not unguided; it’s a human activity that depends on conscious choice. Even so, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s progressing “toward” anything, either. Music is not better or worse based on when it was written.

Another problem with this presentation of evolution is that it implies a single lineage for all classical music. In biological evolution, we think of species as branches of a tree, not the “Great Chain of Being.” Species may share a common ancestor, but they break off in different directions. Similarly, not all music, or even classical music, can be placed into one evolutionary line. The questions Classic Jenny attributes to her characters (the ones that aren’t nonsense) never applied to all classical music within a particular span of time.

Overall, it’s inherently deceptive to apply the evolutionary metaphor to human activities like music. For one thing, species die out or adapt, so that they no longer exist a million years later other than as fossils. But musical “species” can be revived even after they’ve become “extinct,” if you can even consider music as dead when it’s still actively performed. Biological evolution requires continuity, but ideas don’t. (Here’s a philosophical tangent: Should a Beethoven symphony be considered a fossil or a living creature?)

The comic is well-drawn and very cute, but unfortunately it’s based on a faulty presentation of history and can be too easily interpreted as supporting a white male hegemony. (The “Beats me,” in the final panel sure doesn’t help things, as it makes the last panel seem less philosophical and more clueless.) I’m glad Classic Jenny enjoys making art about classical music, but this comic unfortunately missed the mark.

Addendum: Matt Marks pointed out to me that Classic Jenny (a.k.a. Yunyi Ji) clarified on Classic FM’s Facebook post that she intended the comic to support what I listed as the first interpretation:

I also think it’s worth noting that she asked Classic FM to stop reposting her comics without her permission, as the enthusiasm for the second interpretation was probably very disturbing.

Source: “The Evolution of Classical Composition” by Classic Jenny


  1. Hi Linda,

    Glad to receive your thoughts on my work! Thank you very much for writing on it. I am sorry about your health and your concerns, but I can assure you that I am as frustrated by my comic's misinterpretation just as much as you are.

    Firstly, we can both agree that generalizations do not work in the context of history in any sort, nevermind music history. Of course there is always counter-culture to culture. To summarize the entirety of musical styles in each century is not only impossible, but also impractical for a comic. Instead, I am only trying to deal with the questions that have redefined western expectations of music in the context of each century.

    1700-1800: You argue that the text in this panel is meaningless, but the start of the Classical era was defined by the abandonment of Baroque polyphony. We see the relaxation of voice-leading processes, which then allowed room for the development of larger instrumental ensembles, leading the birth of the symphony. Hence, musicians of the Classical era viewed this homophonic approach to texture as being "more effective" than Baroque practices.

    1800-1900: I believe here you are confusing "tonal music" with "music employing tonal language". Most composers, without a doubt, still employed tonal language, but challenged the concept of "tonal music" in which tonality was used in a specific way to define a composition (tonic-dominant relations in sonata-allegro form, for instance). French Impressionism and Wagner's school are obviously the best examples of the shift away from formal and functional tonality, but even composers that work well under the tonal infrastructure have actively questioned it at points (Chopin's Ballade no. 2 is a striking example that comes to mind). Musicians are drifting from classical ideas of tonality, hence -- what is tonal music?

    1900-2000: I have previously cleared up that "What is music?" is meant to be understood as philosophical and not critical. "Beats me" is obviously used for a touch of comedic effect, but is also meant to signify that the question is rhetorical and without correct answer. Music is no longer constrained to the routine of writing stuff down on a page, getting instruments and musicians together, and playing said stuff. Surely you are familiar with La Monte Young and John Cage, who broadened western music's definition into the sounds and experiences of daily life, hence blurring the boundaries between music and any other aural (or non-aural) experience. This is also not to say that music of this age is ONLY abstract, but it can now encompasses the abstract among that which preceded it.

    In addition, I am wildly disappointed that readers might be interpreting the colored, feminine composer in the last panel as being racist or trivial, when it was meant for the exact opposite: I wanted to make a point about how there is hope in our century for non-male persons of color being finally represented and recognized as equals in classical composition and in the context of western academic disciplines as a whole.

    Hopefully this lengthy reply clears up any misunderstandings that my artistic message was either hostile or uninformed. I do admit that the unfortunate misinterpretations could have been better curbed if it wasn't for some oversight on my behalf, which I will take into full consideration for future installations. But, on the other hand, this reveals the prejudice present in much of classical music's modern fanbase, and their close-minded attitude towards the artist's creative endeavor. The negative readings are out of my personal control, but I am glad in the sense that they reveal the fundamental problems in classical audiences today: many listeners are unfortunately not "fans" out of pure endorsement of artistic pursuit, instead as a mark of societal status or to fulfill their self-validating agenda.

    Best wishes,

    1. Hello! First of all, I want to thank you for reading and responding to my post. I know it can be difficult to face criticism of your art, and I appreciate that you're engaging in a discussion.

      I definitely think we're in agreement that the way your comic was interpreted by a significant number of Classic FM is indicative of larger institutional biases and prejudices in the classical music world. It's so uncomfortable to talk about, but I think it's crucial that we do, and I'm trying to make this blog a place where we can have those difficult discussions about snobbery and even, yes, white supremacy.

      It'd be so easy to shrug that off as, "Oh, well the general public just thinks we're snobby and like dead white guys, but they don't really know," but...there is a significant portion of the classical music audience who like being snobs and unapologetically thinks European music is superior because it's European, and that's a problem. (I know you already know this, as you made the artistic choice to put a woman of color in the last panel. I was so relieved to see your response and confirm that you intended to portray diversity as a positive development!)

      As for the more specific criticisms, I was getting nit-picky, which was perhaps unfair. You defend your choice of dates well, though as a musicologist I'm still uncomfortable with how much you rely on periodization (referring to the "start of the Classical era" as though there was a hard division). That's been the way that classical music has been taught in music appreciation and similar classes for decades, and it's an artifact of late 19th/early 20th-century Positivism and attempts to make music history feel more like a science (because that makes it a legit field of study).

      But music historians are moving away from the rigid Med-Ren-Baroque-Classical-Romantic-Modern structure because it imposes an order that leaves out pieces that don't fit. Baroque and Classical are often taught as opposites (Baroque = ornate, ornamented, emotional; Classical = clear, organized, structured), but so much of what's considered the classical aesthetic was an outgrowth of "baroque" opera practices. (And don't forget that the term "baroque" was applied after the fact by 19th-century historians!) The change was more gradual than periodization implies, and there's a lot of neglected music in mid-18th century that doesn't sit well with either term. (C.P.E. Bach's works are sort of wild in this way!)

      Again, though, these are nit-picks when I used your comic as a jumping off point to discuss the limits of using evolution as a metaphor for music history. Perhaps I got a little too far afield from your comic at that point. In any case, I think we agree more than we disagree, and I'm very glad that you're making art and engaging people with it.

      All best,

  2. What a fascinating discussion -- a model of rational discourse. I would add two small points:

    1. The other problem with the Classic FM audience is that, even if your comic was explained to them, they would not accept its premise, that when broadening out the definition of "music," deeper epistemological questions arise, and thus the shortest question—"what is music?"—is the most profound. I find that many classical music partisans are consciously conservative, and take comfort in the "fact" of fixed aesthetic categories. Adorno complained about the "fetishization" of music by these types, an obsession with accidental aspects of music culture like tuxedos and Stradivarii—and he would, I hope, have been dialectical enough to admit that you can turn musical technique itself into a fetish. Try going into such a comment thread and arguing that Cage was a more profound musical thinker than, say, Bach. You'll get mansplained to death!

    2. This is, I think, why Linda has chosen to take her general stand against music-historical cliché. The problem with clichés is not their lack of freshness. It's that falling back on well-worn phrases like "the evolution of music" make it almost impossible to think in a different way without falling into contradiction. Calling you on the contradiction makes us musicologists seem humorless and petty; but we have to work so hard to unlearn what one polemicist called "the ideological claptrap of musicological training," the clichés that we learn in graduate seminars and dispense in undergraduate lectures, that we sometimes can't seem to take a joke.

  3. Comic strips are, by their very nature, reductionist. So, it is a tricky thing to hold a comic strip accountable for something as nuanced as how we discuss the development of western music (something upon which, even musicologists can't agree). That said, I'm conscious of my own reaction (as a musicologist and educator) to that last panel. I was totally fine with all of it until the "beats me" because that sparked my personal struggle. I specialize in music of the 20th/21st centuries, and the "what is music?/beats me" dialogue has negative resonance. That the questions in the other frames elicited no response is what, to my mind, skews the interpretation of that final "beats me" toward something other than what Yunyi intended. It (unwittingly) jumps into the ongoing fray (and cliché) that much of modern music "isn't music." The "beats me" could be the reticence to dig deeper, to learn, to reach beyond one's own aesthetic biases. Or, as Yunyi deftly explained, it could be something that in fact challenges the rhetoric. It is interesting that I interpreted the person of color in the frame as absolutely positive (that we are at least slowly moving beyond the age of dead white men). In a reductionist representation of classical music *narrative*, the white men in the previous three frames make total sense. One might challenge that we've actually arrived at a more equitable narrative in the twentieth century, but certainly there's a smidge more diversity. I'm really glad that Yunyi was willing to dialogue about this because it highlights the tensions between art and narrative, as well as different genres of narrative (periodization, blogging, comics). Robert Fink zeroes in on what makes me uncomfortable, however. I'm conscious of the risk of taking myself too seriously--nothing quite like teaching to remind you of that. The ClassicFM audience is largely shaped by Classic FMs efforts to "popularize" classical music narratives. So, is it fair to nitpick? Yes, but I think we might owe ourselves more invited dialogue before analysis. I'd love to see Linda do a point/counterpoint post (similar to what developed in the comments here) because she has a gift for pulling out the larger questions in these popularized snapshots of our discipline and I'd love to see what the results of an invited and intentional dialogue look like. Just a thought! Love this discussion!

  4. As a curiosity, the Wikipedia article on Georg Philipp Telemann, which I have actually no idea how reliable is, says the following:

    "Over the years, his music gradually changed and started incorporating more and more elements of the galant style, but he never completely adopted the ideals of the nascent Classical era: Telemann's style remained contrapuntally and harmonically complex, and already in 1751 he dismissed much contemporary music as too simplistic."

    I've heard that Bach had the same problem with his son C.P.E. Bach, whose style he regarded as a regression.

    Same with Camile Saint-Saëns and the new Vienna School at the beginning of the twentieth century...

    So it appears that composers in general throughout the history have regarded new styles as regressions and not evolution in the sense of a progress.

    For me as a regular listener and musician, it appears there is indeed a discontinuity, or at least a much more abrupt change between baroke and classical eras as well as between romantic and all of diverse schools that came after. The same didn't occur for example between medieval vs. renaissance, renaissance vs. baroke, and classical vs. romantic.

    1. Some composers, perhaps, but certainly not all. Johannes Tinctoris famously wrote that there was no music worth listening to that hadn't been composed in the last 40 years.

      Besides, you are citing composers at the end of their careers, writing about newer styles. Meanwhile, the younger composers are generally considering their music improvements over the past. Context is important.

      Again, I have quite a lot of experience researching music history books written in the 19th century as the evolutionary model took hold. They were indeed looking for "improvements," carefully tracking the first appearance of certain musical traits in order to pin down the origins of new developments.

      As for your final paragraph, your observations "as a regular listener and musician"--part of my argument is that your perception of the divide between the Baroque and Classical periods has been shaped by the types of music you've been taught to associate with those periods. In other words, the pieces of music that span that divide haven't been promoted as much as the works that we've been told "typify" those ages. They're out there, though, and maybe someone with more experience in this area can chime in with examples (one seminar on 18th-century opera does not an expert make!).

      Remember that the "canon" has been shaped by non-musical influences and is not representative of music as it has been in history. Works have been left out, sometimes because they just didn't fit the narrative.

  5. OK, thank you; I'll be more careful.