The Times, They Are a-Changin’

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes some fascinating observations about the forward movement of our collective moral zeitgeist in the past 100 years. The kind of racism, sexism, and rampant cruelty toward animals that was considered normal in 1910 is today seen, by most civilized people, as utterly barbaric.

Dawkins’s point is that little or none of this progress can be attributed to the moral influence of religion. While it’s true that a few key figures, such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., were certainly motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs, it’s also the case that the most backward, unenlightened, Medieval attitudes toward morality seen in the world today are entirely motivated by religious belief. We seem to have advanced, as a society, in spite of religion.

What interests me, at the moment, is not the religious angle or the moral one, but rather the fact that such a sweeping change has occurred at all. Tonight I was listening to some music distributed with The Csound Book, a fine fat tome that was published in 2000. In light of Dawkins’s description of a wholesale forward movement in the zeitgeist, it struck me that none of the music I was listening to would have been categorizable or comprehensible as music in 1900.

In the past hundred years, our musical culture has been enriched by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, Webern, Shostakovich, and many other restless, exploratory classical composers. We’ve been exposed to the angular blues of Thelonious Monk, the primitive energy of Chuck Berry, and the smoldering grooves of Miles Davis’s electric bands. We’ve had our heads pried open by Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and the Beatles. I could extend the list of innovators almost indefinitely — Brian Eno, the Residents, Wendy Carlos, Steve Reich, the nooks and crannies of progressive rock….

Once your listening brain has expanded to incorporate the sonorities deployed by artists like these, the genie is out of the bottle. You can’t help but encounter an abstract electronic soundscape in a radically different way than a listener would have done a hundred years ago. And yes, such an encounter was possible a hundred years ago, or almost. Luigi Russolo’s first concert of noise music took place in 1914. Russolo was well ahead of his time.

I suspect that much the same mental effect underlies the change in the moral zeitgeist. Once you’ve spent some time sitting in a room, here or there, with folks whose skin color or sexual orientation is different from yours, it’s a lot harder to demonize and despise them. Tolerance builds up momentum; there’s a ratcheting effect. That’s why the knuckle-draggers — the fundamentalist Christians, Moslems, and Jews, no matter how stubborn — are doomed before too much longer to be tossed onto the garbage heap of history. Their willful blindness will not endure.

What we don’t yet have, in music, is a well-developed theory of how these new kinds of sound can be used to good musical effect. The field of sonic experimentation is huge, and every decade it gets bigger. What actually happens in the brain when you hear the crash of a metal trash can lid being struck by a baseball bat in a simulated cement-lined cavern? We don’t quite know. But maybe that’s what makes composing experimental music fun.

Nor do we yet know how the new, healthy morality that replaces religion will look. We can see its broad outlines, but we’re only groping toward a better articulated realization.

It would be nice to think I might live long enough to write a cantata for the dedication of the Chapel of World Peace. Not likely … but then, I don’t have to wait until the chapel is built, do I?

Footnote: Here’s a lovely excerpt from Russolo’s seminal essay, “The Art of Noises,” which was published in 1913:

“The new orchestra will achieve the most complex and novel aural emotions not by incorporating a succession of life-imitating noises but by manipulating fantastic juxtapositions of these varied tones and rhythms. Therefore an instrument will have to offer the possibility of tone changes and varying degrees of amplification.

“The variety of noises is infinite. If today, when we have perhaps a thousand different machines, we can distinguish a thousand different noises, tomorrow, as new machines multiply, we will be able to distinguish ten, twenty, or thirty thousand different noises, not merely in a simply imitative way, but to combine them according to our imagination.

“We therefore invite young musicians of talent to conduct a sustained observation of all noises, in order to understand the various rhythms of which they are composed, their principal and secondary tones. By comparing the various tones of noises with those of [orchestral] sounds, they will be convinced of the extent to which the former exceed the latter. This will afford not only an understanding, but also a taste and passion for noises.”

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