Musicians and listeners alike have individual tastes in musical style. One person loves classical and can’t abide jazz — another digs jazz and falls asleep at classical concerts. One person is committed to death metal, another detests it but loves Celtic folk.

That much is obvious. What’s less obvious is the extent to which each musical preference is the expression of certain social values.

Before I get to the point I’m aiming at, let’s look at one or two familiar examples. Classical symphonic music relies on a high degree of regimentation. The musicians have, basically, no opportunity at all to be spontaneous. This type of music arose to its pinnacle of success and respectability during a historical era (the 19th century) when society at large embraced those same values.

Today, society has changed, but symphonic music hasn’t. At concerts, the musicians still wear the type of evening clothes that were worn by the upper classes at the end of the 19th century. Audiences, of course, can wear whatever they like. This social disconnect probably tells us everything we need to know about the declining popularity of classical music.

Jazz has gone through various stylistic periods. The big bands of the swing era were certainly more regimented than the free-wheeling small groups that preceded and followed them. And of course, swing was at its peak in the 1930s, a decade of considerable economic anxiety, and also the decade when radio made its greatest impact on society. A case could be made that listening to a swing band on the radio provided reassurance — a feeling that, at bottom, all was well in the world.

Today, jazz has much more to do with a deep knowledge of tradition coupled with spontaneous and intuitive social communication among the members of the band. (And of course, phenomenal chops.) If you love jazz today, what you’re loving is an intense social interaction among the members of the band.

In the 1960s, the electric guitar expressed rebellion in a profound way. But after Kiss, the rebellion was mere posturing. Today, nobody takes the electric guitar seriously as a symbol of social rebellion. The same thing has happened more recently with hip-hop. It started out as a new kind of social stance, but today it’s just posturing.

I started thinking about all this after watching a few online videos of young guys making music with modular synthesizers. Stylistically, modular music owes something to dance music, and something to classical minimalism. On a macroscopic level, not much happens in the music — it just floats on and on, propelled by a more or less insistent, though not entirely predictable, rhythm.

At first I was trying to distill for myself the essential elements of this new musical style. But I’m starting to think that focusing on the style as an intellectual construct, in the way that one would discuss Beethoven’s style, kind of misses the point.

The point of this music, I think, is that it’s about interacting with machines. It’s a reflection of the inescapable fact that people today live in a complex, ongoing relationship with machines of various kinds. Your TV remote, the menus and submenus you have to navigate when you phone any large corporate entity, the warning light on your car’s dashboard, your cell phone, the scanner at the airport — more and more, the joys and sorrows of our lives are dictated not by our social exchanges with other people (that would be jazz) but with our ability to have mastery of the machines.

Modular synthesizer players are, from beginning to end, demonstrating their mastery of machines. That’s what the music is about. The person who has plenty of modules is demonstrating economic fitness, of course — and for profound evolutionary reasons, demonstrating one’s fitness is an important aspect of any musical style. But if you have more modules than anybody else, yet you fail to demonstrate mastery of their features, you’ll fall flat on your face.

To look at it another way, modular music is less about digital dexterity (though that’s certainly helpful) than about intellectual dexterity. When the musician can surprise you — and perhaps even surprise himself — with a fresh sound while remaining in control of a complex electronic system, that’s virtuosity.

This virtuosity rests less on the raw existence of such things as synthesizers than on our social desire to express a new kind of relationship to technology.

Let’s hope it lasts a few more years before the posturing sets in.


2 thoughts on “Style as Social Construct

  1. Offhand I think that musical style preferences are a matter of 1) social identification and 2) “felts”. (This was either David Bohm’s term or one he picked up from talks with Krishnamurit; it’s analogous to “thoughts” as opposed to “thinking” — ‘what I’m thinking’ vs ‘what I thought once but just repeat ever since.’)

    The ‘picking your musical flag’ aspect is pretty obvious: “I like ___ because I’m ____! Yay!”

    Felts? Well, what does music do to us, aside from sounding familiar (“Our kind of stuff”) or unfamiliar (“What is this? Yuck!”)?

    It sneaks up and grabs us by our emotions. “Beauty” is elusive, but if there’s an emotion waiting to happen…. and one just hasn’t had a suitable occasion for awhile — then a piece of music that arouses that is going to appeal. One might not even ‘like’ it at first, but will want to hear it again. (Alternatively, if one is too strongly adverse to that feeling, may ‘hate’ it passionately instead!) On a slightly different emotional dimension, some people are more or less comfortable with, craving-or-avoident of high excitement-levels.

    & some styles may simply be boring to anyone who listens closely, but ideal for anyone too scattered to notice…?

    The preclassical tradition had considerable room for improvisation — and probably this had to do with it being for small group performances. A full-scale improvising jazz orchestra might out-mingus Mingus; people would get lost in the noise — and they’d impose tighter controls just to keep people from drowning out each others’ performances. [What you said about ‘big bands’? That word ‘big’ is significant here!]

    1. Thanks for the comments! The thing I neglected to mention about big bands was that they were dance music. Both earlier and later in the 20th century, jazz wasn’t really about dancing. A more regimented style was better for dancing.

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