Thursday, December 4, 2008

Music in mid-future and far-future invented worlds

My house reeks of burnt lentils. Don't you hate it when you forget that you've got a soup simmering because you're too involved in work to do more than inhale the lovely smell every now and then without remembering you're supposed to go down to the kitchen to stir it and make sure the broth hasn't completely boiled off? And then the moment comes when the mists of mental involvement are pierced by your realization that the smell is no longer lovely. And when you go down to look, you discover that both the lentils and the pot are covered with a thick black crust that looks suspiciously like ash and is exhaling smoke into the room...

I'm thinking maybe dinner had better pizza...

But to shift from the olfactory to the auditory: reading Adam Roberts' review of Ian R.MacLeod's Song of Time over at Strange Horizons got me to thinking about the trickiness of imagining what kind of music people will be listening to, performing, and writing in the future and, more generally, the difficulty the writer faces when trying to imagine any of the arts, high and low, in our invented futures. I haven't read Song of Time, myself, so I don't know how just Roberts' characterization of the novel as "backward-, not forward-looking" and suggests that MacLeod's future Paris of the 2050s is really a teched-up version of the historical Paris of the 1920s.

As an sf setting, the 2050s are not that far into the future, of course, and would theoretically include people alive today in its middle-aged and older generations; moreover, the main character is an old woman who had an international career as a brilliant violinist, married to a brilliant conductor. Despite this proximity to the present-day, because of the novel's extrapolated turmoil and upheaval, Roberts has a problem with MacLeod's choosing to make the music of MacLeod's future Paris

all Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Stravinsky and, in a Desert-Islands-Disc-style sop to popular taste, one reference to Thin-White-Duke-era Bowie. There's a rather touching assumption that mid-21st-century cultural life will revolve around classical music concerts and performances, even as the world's ecosystems implode and nuclear war rages ("people had grown sick of big beats and clever virtualities, and they liked the idea of dressing up and going out for the evening to watch living people performing music which somehow sounded fresh and new despite its age," p. 269). It's MacLeod's world, and he can do what he likes with it of course; but I can't say this rang true for me.

Roberts also criticizes the newly composed music in that setting as MacLeod imagines it, in a way that makes sense to me, further underscoring the pitfalls of attempting to both imagine and then describe new musical sounds, and concludes: "We have to take on trust that Roushana's memories are soaked through with gorgeous, brilliant, new music, and I never did."

Since I haven't read Song of Time, I can't comment on MacLeod's choices. But I have noticed that music often serves a nostalgic function for many authors, a function that such authors presumably expect will work for readers in the same way it works for the author. The first time I consciously perceived such a function at work in an sf story was when I noticed an older male author describing the far-future protagonist relaxing after a tough meeting with a dry gin martini followed by a porterhouse steak with a plate of sliced beefsteak tomatoes, a good bottle of cabernet sauvignon, and a cigarette. I remember scratching my head, wondering why such things would exist out in the galaxy and what would be required for them to continue to exist and be experienced exactly as the author himself presumably experienced them. What purpose does this anachronism serve? I asked myself. Clearly the narrative was not suggesting that the conditions of production and consumption were identical to those of the twentieth-century United States. What I came up with was that at the very least, the author wished to imbue his character's experience with his own notion of pleasure and taste---but that he also possibly imagined that such taste was universal and thus would preserved for as long as human beings exist. Many authors, of course, don't slack off in this way. (An excellent example of how it can be done correctly is Samuel R. Delany's Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand.) Such narrowness of imagination is akin to the way in which most sf writers simply assume gender works in the same way they imagine it works in our world. (I.e., that gender is always a particular way naturally, and that though there can be exceptions, one would naturally not depict them unless one were explicitly imagining exceptions.) (Naturally there will always be steak and cabernet sauvignon!)

When music is used in a similar way (i.e., in the service of nostalgia), it indicate a kind of slippage in which the author falls down in extrapolating-- or it might indicate that the author can't imagine that certain kinds of music will ever cease to be understood or appreciated. It's not always Mozart and Bach, of course, that is cast in this role. It might be particular kinds of rock music (most often from the Sixties), or opera, or folk music, or Broadway musicals, or blues, or jazz, or country-western. And somehow, just somehow, that particular fragment of Anglo-European music survives into the future as the piece of the musical past that still works, even when all the rest has been forgotten. Sure, I can imagine an extrapolation that could make it work, but how many sf stories ever bother to think through that particular historical survival? In the end, I have to conclude that either the author was just being carelessly superificial, or else he or she actually believes that musical (or any other aesthetic) taste is hardwired. Of course human beings will still love listening to Bach! (Or John Lennon. Or Jimi Hendrix. Or Hank Williams. Or fill-in-the-blank.) The best is universal!

That's what 19th-century Euopeans believed about European high culture when they encountered people who couldn't appreciate Beethoven or Shakespeare or perspective painting and since they, in turn, could not understand the traditional music or dance of non-European cultures, they assumed the aesthetic productions of other cultures were simply inferior (i.e., "primitive").

It wasn't long ago that neuroscientists began using PET and MRI scans to examine the brain as subjects listened to music, performed music, or employed language. I recall reading with considerable fascination a few articles in an issue of Science on people with or without perfect pitch. More areas of the brain light up when people with perfect pitch listen to music than do when those without perfect pitch listen to the same music. An article in the same issue (or perhaps it was even a part of the same article-- my memory is admittedly hazy) noted that while not very many nonmusicians born and raised in the US have perfect pitch, a great many nonmuisicians born and raised in East Asia do. It seems that learning Chinese or various other East Asian languages as one's first language predisposes one to perfect pitch-- or rather, preserves the perfect pitch that some scientists believe all infants are born with (and then lose when it is not put to use). I can't find a copy of the issue in question (which is probably sitting in a pile of stuff waiting for years to be filed), but I seem to recall that musicians with relative pitch (though not perfect pitch) also listen to music differently (neurologically speaking) than do nonmusicians (though not identically to musicians with perfect pitch).

I've long been aware that although I'm no longer a musician and I haven't used the perfect pitch I had as a child and adolescent for the last 35 years, my experience listening to music is very different to the experience of "music lovers" who never received extensive training as a musician. (And I often find that they tend to like the music of composers I find boring-- because what tickles and pleases my ear most these days are the intricacies of counterpoint interacting with tonal structures. I know very well that when most people hear Haydn, they probably hear the melody and an undifferentiated block of sound that moves through a series of cadences involving the tonic, subdominant, and dominant. (Which they then find boring, since they don't hear anything happening.) I hear the dances most of Haydn's music was based on, and my particular pleasure lies in distinctly perceiving the simultaneous movement of different lines within the overall tonal structure. One woman's bliss is another's noise. In every case, though, taking pleasure in music entails learning what to listen to and creating the neural pathways that produce pleasure whenever you do so. Who can account for the variability of that pleasure from individual to individual, as idiosyncratic as the mysterious chemistry of sexual attraction? When I was a child, my whole being would be transfused with joy at hearing a full D-major triad. The other students in my music theory class with me in high school used to watch my face during dictation (an exercise requiring the student to write down what they hear the teacher playing at the piano)-- just in case one of the chords played happened to be a D-major triad. I just couldn't help myself. But then from my childhood I've had distinct emotional associations with every musical key of the harmonic system that developed in Europe at the outset of the baroque period and still undergirds popular music in the West today.

If my delight in Haydn is another woman's boredom, and Elvis Presley sounded to my first choirmaster (back in 1957) like "a cow demanding to be milked," so it is with all music. I don't really understand why everyone doesn't get this. But I don't think they do, since one of the most commonplace (and socially acceptable) objects of insult continues to be another person's taste in music. People are always calling someone else's music "noise" or "garbage" or "trash" with perfect confidence that their own taste is the only correct one. This happens between and across generations, ethnic groups, religious denominations, classes-- as though just about everyone in the world is a music snob (because everyone else's taste is inferior to their own). Not everyone is, of course, though most people are in one way or another. My tastes are pretty broad among Western and African forms of music (though I certainly don't know how to listen to Asia forms), but I will cop to having a deep prejudice against certain 19th-century European composers, a prejudice I developed while hanging out with musicians who had no hesitation in branding some of the stuff they'd have to play as members of orchestras as "trash" they didn't respect.

So given the very local character of musical taste, how can it not be tricky to project one's own taste onto a future society? Brains need to be taught how to hear musical arrangements of sound as emotionally and intellectually engaging. A taste for Haydn or Miles Davis or Prince isn't simply hardwired into this or that brain at birth.

Writers who stick to the near-future don't have to worry about this. But really, it's no wonder that sf writers rarely create aesthetic systems for their more distant-future invented worlds.

If only I could get rid of that stench... I bet certain negative tastes are universal. Have you ever met anyone who thought the stench of burnt food was heavenly?


Vandana said...

Very interesting post, Timmi. I think the issue is not just of authors assuming that their particular musical preferences will live on in the distant future but also there is a problem of writing about music in a universal manner. What I mean by the latter is that if there is a story about a kind of music with which I'm unfamiliar, the author should be skillful enough to help me understand what it sounds like (to the extent possible), what emotions it evokes, what the cultural context is, and so on, otherwise it is just a bunch of alien technobabble to me. I've read too many short stories where the writer does not succeed at this or evokes the world of the musician in a stereotypical way.

I am at some point going to write a novel (been in my head for 4 years now) which has in part to do with North Indian classical music, in which I have some training (and for which I have a passion) but I have to get around this barrier first.

Commiserations on the lentils! A sadly familiar experience for me.


Josh said...

Vandana, I think you --to use a favorite malapropism of my mother's-- put your hand on the finger with respect to what a writer discussing the effects of music or any of the lyric arts must do. Dick, I feel, did a great job conveying what Dowland and Wagner meant to him and his characters; Silverberg in Dying Inside and Sturgeon in his various references to early jazz are okay; Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document does very nice things with hippie music. But a novelist like Pelecanos who just reels of band names and song titles in the hope of evoking a time and place , oy, how does he get away with that?

Josh said...

Oh, and I have had that burning saucepan experience with pasta sauce. Never tried cooking lentils on the stove: pasta sauce holds my interest, whereas lentils are kind of dal.

Anil Menon said...

Interesting questions, Timmi. They reminded me of my mixed reaction to Kim Stanley Robinson's music-centered "The Memory of Whiteness." He describes the intriguing "Holywelkin Orchestra" as a "modern orchestra caught in a small tornado" and the music it makes as consisting of "mournful honks and hoots." I immediately thought of Mumbai's traffic, and the unfortunate evocation distracted me for the rest of the book. But I'm thinking it's not such a bad analogy after all. Traffic is ordered, random, noisy, reassuring, annoying, exhilarating, real, suicidal and all the other 330 million names of Brahma. Perhaps future music is sure to sound a bit like Mumbai's traffic just as future food is sure to taste a bit like chicken.

claire said...

i think most people use descriptions of music in their fiction to build their world, build their character's status or cool, or to build their own status or cool. that's why they don't think it through, and that's why most fictional descriptions of music are so badly written and embarrassing to read.

the best i've read is china mieville's descriptions of drum 'n' bass in "king rat," which descriptions were essential to the plot. the first time i'd ever read writing about popular music that didn't make me want to hide my head in shame.

i've had similar thoughts about stories that use descriptions of art. writers want to display characters that are cultured and sophisticated, ergo they are experts in visual art.

but the writers themselves don't know jack about visual art, so their future characters talk about picasso and renoir and the old masters, as if the past fifty years have produced nothing of relevance to the culture of the future.

i think this is the problem with creative writing about any other art form: writers tend to be ignorant of any form other than their own, and their ignorance leads them to believe (even about their own form) that importance and sophistication all lie in the past, that art is not an ongoing conversation but rather an archive or crypt.

do i sound bitter?

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