Wednesday, December 28, 2011


You can see a similar alternation of surge-phases of innovation with periods of consolidation and eclecticism in other genres, like jazz and classical music. In 20th Century composition, the astringent and emotionally traumatic innovations of atonality and twelve-tone developed by Schoenberg were followed by a phase known as neo-classicism, which involved adopting and adapting the harmonic clarity of Mozart and Bach from almost two centuries earlier. According to Schoenberg-fanboy Adorno, Stravinsky--the most famous exponent of neo-classicism-- was guilty of "regressive eclecticism…. parasitism on the old " (the words here are Perry Anderson's gloss on Adorno's famously stern stance). Like a classical music equivalent to the Jesus & Mary Chain, Stravinsky even went in for direct or slightly distorted quotations from illustrious ancestors like Schubert, Pergolesi, and Tchaikosvky. After the second world war, though, there was a renewed push towards full-tilt innovation, both in orchestral music with the dominance of serialism as a compositional method and in electronic music with the adoption of new technological possibilities like tape editing and synthesizers.

What is different about the alternating rhythms of surge and slow-down within music's high culture is that they are relatively immune from fashion logic. Well, there certainly trends within the higher arts and as the great theorist of fashion Edward Sapir argued "there is nothing to prevent a thought, a type of morality or an art form from being the psychological equivalent of a costuming of the ego." But classical music is less tied to market forces than pop, and so less vulnerable to the economic pressures that create cycles of novelty and obsolescence.

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