Progress, goals, relevance

One fundamental idea associated strongly with technology is progress. After treating the flaws of "progress" as a philosophical ideal in the discussion of postmodernism versus modernism, some thoughts on more specific cases to which the idea might apply are a necessary preliminary for wrapping up the year's technology series. After writing the answer to a FAQ on "progress in early music interpretations," several abstract issues suggest themselves. To summarize that article, which is written for the fairly naïve reader, although one cannot support the idea of "progress" in art or interpretation generally, when it comes to medieval music, we have learned new things which allow us to improve performances in concrete ways. One could deny that even this represents real improvement (or progress), but if we accept the goal of historical fidelity as indeed a goal, that goal has undoubtedly come closer to fruition. We can call it unreachable, but closer is nonetheless closer. And it seems to be a good goal, not because of any broader ideas on progress, but simply because this is some wonderful music being rediscovered, richer than people's preliminary visions of it might have been. The point is this: Within a narrowly defined context, one can have progress, perhaps at the expense of something else.

In the case of technology, similar comments apply. According to the goal of simply having more technology, we have made progress. More concretely, we have digitized music and found ways to distribute it by computer. What, in turn, was this goal intended to accomplish? Well, perhaps we can accomplish some new forms of artistic expression on the web. What then is the goal of that? At some point, the goal must be to enrich our lives somehow, and technological development is only orthogonal to doing that. It is orthogonal, at least, for anyone who is not fascinated by technology itself. Today many people are fascinated by the technology of the web itself, but before long, they will be no more fascinated with that than they are with how their refrigerators work. Of course, I do find it convenient to be able to store cold food at home. The relevance of technology is only in the facilitation of something else, something else which might itself be directly relevant, hopefully something such as music. Ideas on relativism contribute heavily to turning these relationships, and consequently priorities, upside down. If we cannot agree on what makes good art, at least we can agree that the refrigerator keeps food cold. The latter becomes the superior accomplishment by default, simply because the former is so difficult to appraise. One might better ask if the superior accomplishment is beyond our capacity to judge.

All this is clear enough, but one might then ask, why do performers continue to interpret music? If interpretations do not generally improve, why not leave them alone? The first answer is that such is the nature of music. The second answer is that a new interpretation is ours, not someone else's. We do it again & again, because we want to express ourselves today, for ourselves today, not for anyone yesterday. The broader truth is this: Progress is whatever happens. The most seductive aspect of me-first ideological systems such as Social Darwinism is that they make "whatever happens" a goal, and so immediately make one feel good about aligning goals with progress. Those ideological systems are more than that, however, as they are not really about accepting fate: They are about justifying antisocial actions after the fact, by painting them as inevitable and defining the inevitable as good, and so ultimately about glorifying ignorance and refusing to improve oneself as a person. This is the primary "dotcom" ideology, one which makes it easy to justify any resulting destruction as not just an unfortunate side effect, but as progress itself. At some level, goals really are arbitrary, and so for many dotcoms, the goal of "making money fast" overrides everything else. The relevance of music has been diminished by this environment, and we need a way to reestablish it. Although injecting pseudo-scientific ideas on perfecting interpretations according to "composers' intentions" has provided one means to infiltrate this mentality, it cannot be successful in the end, because it diminishes the scope of musical expression by its nature.

What then of expanding the scope of musical expression as a goal itself? The last few decades have seen this expansion transpire, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to witness it. However, like most areas of "progress," we can expect the various forces to shift in cyclical fashion, and for possibilities to begin contracting, if indeed they have not already. There are practical limits to ever-expanding possibilities, limits on how much one person can learn, and limits on the viability of increased specialization. The latter fact has lent certain efforts an insularity, and gives rise to complementary experimentation in fusion and demands for a new mainstream. There are more things a person can know than can possibly be learned or remembered, and concentrating too much on one of them makes it dangerously easy to lose sight of relevance. All too often, the path of relevance is as narrow as a razor's edge... too far to one side and one is unfathomable, too far to the other and one becomes a cliché. These sides have their own dichotomies as well: The latter has the potential of using convention in an affirmative way, while the former has the potential of communicating with initiates who in turn communicate with others. Notice, please, that not only does such a framework vary based on perspective, but that it already presumes "progress" as a validator. The fallacy is one of focus, namely being too close to something forces one to see activity as progress, whereas being farther away allows one to see it simply as activity but also precludes being involved. We are poorly equipped to appraise things larger than ourselves, including "evolution" and other progress-oriented ideas. To be relevant, then, one must somehow undertake goals passionately while realizing that they are largely arbitrary. Indeed one must realize the truth in the cliché "the more things change, the more they stay the same," without letting it quell one's enthusiasm for expression. Expression as a pure act does remain relevant, as does involvement itself.

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Todd M. McComb