The masterpiece phenomenon

Those around music generally speak of "masterpieces" in particular styles, giving them status as exemplars of broad artistic divisions. This extends to other endeavors, and must be taken primarily as a simplification, allowing a smaller subset of material to stand for a much larger body of repertory. However, such a simplification cannot be seen exclusively as laziness, given the nature of cognition and the necessities of screening out most of our perceptual stimuli on a daily level. I don't want to get too heavily into cognitive psychology here, but I do want to describe why I think the "masterpiece" is both a useful concept and a true reflection of reality.

Today we aren't supposed to speak of one thing being better than another, yet when it comes to music any number of simple examples will serve to demonstrate how silly this is. For instance, against any of the well-known works of the literature, banging away disinterestedly on a piano is unlikely to hold up well. You get the idea. The underlying fact here is that preferences are not uniform. In other words, if we accept some misguided theoretical equality, things won't remain equal as soon as real people are involved, because some items simply will not be chosen. I don't really accept a democratic view of art either, but it is important to note that a statistical view of individual preferences does not yield a continuum. It yields a smaller set of clusters, and this is what I call granularity. If we can adapt some statistical metric to such a result, and collapse each granule into a hypothetical entity, we are left with a relatively smaller set of irreconcilable spanning preferences. Forgive me for the math terms, but it is the most precise language I know.

The basic idea is that such a process can be carried out either on repertory to yield the mythical "masterpiece" or on performances to yield the even more illusory "definitive interpretation." Maybe some of you have seen me write on this topic before, and I could go on for far longer than would be interesting, but the remaining thing to note here is that, like any simplification, it comes down to hand waving at some point and can be patched by increasing complexity (the nature of analysis, as opposed to other conceptual approaches). Looking back at this model, the chosen "masterpieces" are self-reinforcing, as the perhaps arbitrary choices are then used in other media as a priori examples etc., and by composers as inspiration for new music. This is a resonance phenomenon in the model, and actually causes the granularity to become intensified in a time series.

The core tradition

The focus here is on repertory, yet that cannot truly be separated from performance, especially for music outside of the core tradition. Further, resonance can be explained largely in terms of performance phenomena. It is no coincidence that the core Western repertory dates to the time when the modern concert arrangement began, and in turn to the period in which a greater number of people had sufficient leisure resources to attend such concerts. In many ways, the repertory begins here, because this is the music which never disappeared from the public eye. For our time series, the earlier music is actually tacked on later. The core tradition is so well entrenched that the masterpieces are clearly delineated, with multiple threads (whether consciously a priori, or through accretion) connecting individual masterpieces which are linked through the commonality & impetus of their admirers. Some masterpieces (e.g. Beethoven's 9th Symphony) are so canonical that they actually influence our subsequent ideas on what a masterpiece should be.

When we come to modern music, the number of threads increases. I regard this as both natural & good, and indeed if we include popular traditions and other repertories from around the world, the number of threads is very large indeed. In the case of modern classical composition, these are primarily self-conscious in their evolution, i.e. a piece is written with its placement in mind. Such a thing is virtually unavoidable, but also places an undue burden on the composer. These threads do not yet have the sharpness of distance, but their outlines are perceptible even if their individual members may not be. When faced with this masterpiece phenomenon, for both entrenched and natural reasons, repertory from completely outside the canon (i.e. that which has or had its own tradition, such as world or early music) faces a severe contortion to fit. What I see are forced attempts at resonance, known in the real world as marketing. Perhaps marketing is a fine example for our scheme, because it is something which always existed yet became intensified when it acquired a name. This is an example of what I call "accretion."

The new old masterpieces

The masterpiece phenomenon differs markedly between world & early music, and I'd like to treat each separately. First, the main commonality: Most individual world traditions have their own "masterpiece" threads although the concept can be distended for improvisatory music, and this is also true for Renaissance & Baroque music. Indeed a substantial body of commentary survives, and there is a scholarly component stretching almost continuously from those eras, if done largely in back rooms. The problem with welding these threads onto the current classical core is twofold, namely that the process is rushed, and that the core ideas on "masterpiece" per se are forced too strongly onto other stylistic planes from which a more organic emergence is desirable. The former is critical to doing service to the latter, because the granularity is statistically hazy and indeed metastable.

Although threaded into our core from a variety of directions, each world music tradition maintains a distinct identity in its own culture. These repertories have their own aesthetics, and their own means of discernment. Indeed, Indian music is easily identifiable in outline from the middle ages, and is accompanied by scholarly discussion going back farther still. In brief, we do not canonize these musics in ways parallel to what their own cultures do. The world music movement seems driven primarily by novelty in sonority & rhythm. The latter is especially true of the most widely known performers, where the rhythm involved is not the most sophisticated for the tradition, but rather novel there as well, with an insistence on flash and showmanship. Indeed, I believe that most of the success of world music in the West is sexually driven, resting on a visceral attraction to the exotic and expressing itself in high-speed mêlées. This is perhaps most true of its reception in polite society, where sexual energy is more sublimated.

The situation with early music is more complex. Although this repertory is now tacked onto the ends of our core tradition, it was obviously came first. To place it there would involve a fundamental realignment of our masterpiece threads, and would be a change of profound significance for Western traditional music. In fact, I view the resulting instability as a primary cause of the dissociation in modern music, and as a tension internal to our tradition which can hopefully have its energy released constructively. The more mundane side is that a note arguing for a "minor" piece beside the major works, can have strange effects if read by someone unaware of the masterpieces to which it is reacting! Such a rectifiable state of confusion would be meaningless, if not for the seemingly mad rush to re-canonize all of Early Music, because these things do stick via resonance. There are some strange "biases" developing, in the sense of consistent distinctions between how people rate this music today and how they did at the time, but this column is already far too long so I will discuss one specific case in more detail next week.

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Todd M. McComb