The evolution of music and the importance of balance

Music, as I’ve recently argued on this blog, swings from one extreme to another. On the one hand, there are the technicians, who think music can be learned through meticulous practice. The chief virtue of technicians is the demand for perfection. On the other hand, there are the artists, who think music comes from innate inspiration, which is its foremost virtue. This roughly corresponds to the distinction in the movie Black Swan between the ‘white swan’ who is tightly coordinated and the ‘black swan’ who is chaotic and passionate. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche drew a similar distinction between the ‘Apollonian’ love of order and the ‘Dionysian’ love of chaos. In music, art is Dionysian, while technique is Apollonian. Artists follow their instincts, while technicians try to channel the inspiration of others through their own demand for perfection. Art comes first, but technique matters if you want to make music that appeals to a wide audience. Technique is easy to appreciate; but only art is truly loved. Technique is learned; art is innate.

The desert of music (from Max Max: Fury Road).

In classical music, the technician behind it all is J. S. Bach, who devised the harmonic structure which has dominated music since, through taking the singular melodies of medieval and Renaissance music and splicing them together. Bach rules the period known as the ‘baroque’ era. The next era was the ‘classical’ era, when Mozart simplified Bach’s counterpoint in the distinction between melody and harmony, with a song-like upper voicing overlaying an arpeggiated baseline below. Today, we see this in the distinction between ‘chords’ and ‘lyrics’. The producer or composer will devise the technical foundation over which the singer or rapper will improvise their artistic superstructure. But this distinction is collapsed by Beethoven, whose chaotic music perfects the artistic journey towards pure passion while maintaining a semblance of technical rationality. But after Beethoven, classical music went out of control. Compare Mozart’s Requiem with Verdi’s, and we see how classical music devolved from order into complete chaos, such that Verdi’s ‘Dies Irae’ was even used to introduce the latest ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ movie. In a world of climate chaos, is it surprising that both baroque technique and classical balance are being surpassed by romantic art and its corresponding anarchy?

It is an enduring irony that our age, which has forgotten the value of art and places all appreciation on the technical abilities of singers and players of music, has swung in its musical content towards an artistic extreme. Romanticism dominates, across almost all genres. This is because the modern era of music began, in a sense, with the collapse of the classical era. Jazz music took off where romanticism left off, borrowing from baroque music and non-western music in order to create a new paradigm for musical appreciation and performance. But the romanticised and sexualised lyrics of jazz music betray the genre’s neo-baroque harmonies, which themselves owe a great deal to the lush, over-the-top chords of the late romantic era. Rock music, like Mozart’s classical period, simplified this harmonic structure to allow room for artistic expression, culminating in the grand statements of ‘progressive rock’, from Pink Floyd to Radiohead. Hip hop music looked like a new baroque era for a time, with an innovative splicing of samples and overlaying of complex lyricism not seen since the lost age of the poets. But hip hop reached its own culmination in Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which — like the Requiems of the classical period — mourns the eclipse of spiritual beauty by sexual fantasy. Something has been lost; what is lost is the transcendent, in the drowning waters of our immanent reality.

Since then, popular music has devolved into complete chaos. On the one hand, there is R&B, which fetishises the body and its mythic powers. On the other hand, there is hip hop, which since Kanye has had somewhat of a spiritual awakening, although this is somewhat lost on some of Kanye’s successors. Kanye’s range is much broader, and what is lost in a romantic age is precisely this technical breadth and its accompanying artistic depth. In truth, the reason it is confusing as to what is left of contemporary music is that nothing is left. We are truly in dark times. Music has collapsed around us, but there is the semblance of technique from the 2000s era of triumphal, jazz-inspired pop music, and the 2010s era of mourning, rock-inspired pop music. Now the 2020s look set to be the culmination of hip hop’s popularisation. At the end of the 2000s there was a moment of glory in popular music, similar to the elevating glory of the middle classical period. At the end of the 2010s there was a moment of haunting darkness in popular music, again echoing late classical music. Now we have reached the end of the line, like the end of classical music and the beginning of modern music. There were three stages of music up to this point, each with their own three steps of technique, balance, and artistry:

1. The classical era (baroque, classical, romantic),

2. The modern era (jazz, rock, hip hop), and

3. The contemporary era (2000s technique, 2010s balance, and 2020s artistry).

The danger is that this decade ends where the classical era ended, with a complete triumph of romanticism over reason and revelation. Both ‘God’ and ‘Good’ look set to be eclipsed by the illusory light of banal attraction between lost human beings.

I see the genres collapsing into each other, because they are, right now. Music is entering a new dark age, one from which we are unlikely to emerge for some time. I have myself attempted to arrest this decline, but I am late in my attempts and early in my experience. The timing was just not right. How the mighty have fallen — before we even began. What is next for music, in the shadow of God? The crown-less again shall be king. Otherwise, we will remain slaves of this new tyranny, forever. Freedom lies in the realisation that romanticism is false: nothing is lost, not really. What happened once can happen again. The darkness dominates, but it need not last forever. The light will return, and the shadows will fall. Something has awoken from its slumber — something we did not see. What has awoken? What is this new power? What is the new reality to reawaken old fantasy, and bring the two into unity? And who can bring back revealing balance in an age of misleading extremes?

Well, we will just have to wait and see …

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