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March 13, 2007

« London Calling | Main | Welccome to the watt.com era »

Pattismithsetfreedm_1 Patti Smith writing in the New York Times on her induction into the rock and roll hall of fame:

On a cold morning in 1955, walking to Sunday school, I was drawn to the voice of Little Richard wailing “Tutti Frutti” from the interior of a local boy’s makeshift clubhouse. So powerful was the connection that I let go of my mother’s hand. Rock ’n’ roll. It drew me from my path to a sea of possibilities. It sheltered and shattered me, from the end of childhood through a painful adolescence. ...  Rock ’n’ roll was mine to defend. It strengthened my hand and gave me a sense of tribe as I boarded a bus from South Jersey to freedom in 1967. ... Our music provided a sense of communal activism. Our artists provoked our ascension into awareness as we ran amok in a frenzied state of grace.My late husband, Fred Sonic Smith, then of Detroit’s MC5, was a part of the brotherhood instrumental in forging a revolution: seeking to save the world with love and the electric guitar.

Boy, that got me. I can just as vividly remember the first time I heard Jimi Hendrix in 1967.  And it also got me thinking about the relationship between musical creativity, innovation and social change.  I'm amazed really by the lack of serious thinking and scholarship around music and its larger social context. Sure there are some sharp popular music critics. But most critics continue to view works of music in isolation, as good or bad, based on their sound, lyrics and dynamics.  Even if they know a great deal about it, most music critics tend to think and write about music absent its larger  social context.

A handful of academics have tried, but the results are spotty. There's always Walter Benjamin's notion of the decline of aura in the era of mechanical reproduction. And the cranky complaints of Theodor Adorno about popular music, especially jazz.  There is a small literature on music scenes, a pretty good on technological change and musical creativity. I'm encouraged that a sociologist of the stature of Bill Bielby, also a musician, is involved in a project on early garage bands, including his own. But in the main,when scholars start thinking about musical creativity it begins and ends in the main with Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. 

But think for example of the great social histories we have of modern art and its relation to economic, cultural and social trends. Really, I can't think of anyone who has really tried to understand the musical creativity, the role of music scenes, or cycles of musical innovation in the broader context of economic and social evolution. Can you?

So, I'm starting to dig in. And with a couple of members of my team we are launching on project on  music innovations and music scenes as part of the broader process of economic and social change.  So here, very quickly, are the outlines of what we're starting to think about.

Music very definitely is part of a broader process of social and economic evolution. It is a reflection of social and economic change, and in turn it helps to produce those changes. But musical creativity occurs in sharp bursts, there are cycles of it. Sure, people are developing musical talent all along, but for a variety of reasons due to the social character of innovations, major outbursts of creativity occur in bunches or clusters. Major innovations in jazz for example occurred in the period from roughly 1920 through the 1950s, roughly. In rock and roll, innovation starts in the late 1940s, with upticks in the mid-1960s,  and mid-to-late 70s, according to rock critic and social theorist Simon Fricke -  Patti Smith's formative years.  This clustering phenomena is not unique to music, but is characteristic of innovation generally. The great economist of innovation, Joseph Schumpeter, long ago argued that technological innovation comes in bursts and cycles which set in motion the great gales of creative destruction that shape industries, economies and societies. 

But what if the two are related?  The way I've come think about it is that  those great gales of creative destruction don't begin and end with technology or business, they extend much further into society and culture. Actually, they probably don't begin with technology. The causality, if you will, here is reversed. Those great bursts are really the consequences of a focused, pent-up release of social energy. This burst of transformative energy pulls unleashes a tsunami of human creative capabilities across the board,  in far-flung fields from entrepreneurship and technology to music and culture -  creating a Steve Jobs and a Bill Gates here; a Patti Smith and a Jimi Hendrix there.

But these concentrated bursts of transformative energy are  not evenly spread across geography. They occur in space as well as in time. In other words, they cluster, concentrate and pull talent into tight spaces or scenes.  Just think about the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s, producing a series of stunning innovations in semiconductors, computing, software and the like, all the while informing a much broader process of cultural change and musical innovation, from its vibrant music scene to its advances in commerce and distribution especially with the invention of large music festivals.  What did Woz do after he left Apple? He started WozFest, a musical event. No need to push the point. You get the idea.

Great periods of musical and technological innovation, economic and social change, are shaped by the same underlying process -  concentrated periods of social transformation and the unleashing of  human transformative energy across the board, which for better or worse occur in very concentrated places.  More to come.

In the meantime, I'd really appreciate your thoughts, ideas, suggestions, data and references?


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You might want to take a look at Eric Zolov's work. In the 1990s he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the place of rock and roll in 1970s Mexican counter culture. He had a very global take on what rock music meant to individuals and groups. As I recall one of his main points was that rock was urban, and connected to the growth of urban culture world wide. That is neither America nor Britain had a monopoly on its meaning or use.


Wendy - Thank you. I will.

Konig Klata

Not apropos of music but certainly of the creation of tribes, community, social change you would do well to read again Patti Smith's own words regarding the creation of: "- a sense of communal activism. Our artists provoked our ascension into awareness as we ran amok in a frenzied state of grace."

Look to Second Life.

Jim Plamondon

There is often a technological basis to musical innovations.

Consider the piano-forte. When introduced in 1727, in order for its sound to be compatible with that of the harpsichord, it had a produce a very bright sound, using hard hammers. Later, felt hammers were used to soften the sound, which had the effect of minimizing the energy going into the higher harmonics (e.g., the 7th, 11th, and 13th). These partials are those which clash worst in 12-tone equal temperament; dulling them accelerated the move away from the harpsichord's 1/n-comma meantone (and various well-temperaments) to 12-tone equal temperament. It is not a coincidence that felted hammers became the norm in the mid-1800's, when 12-tone equal temperament was becoming the norm, too.

Likewise, the development of the valves for brass instruments in the early 1800's enabled them to play chromatically for the first time, rather than just playing the harmonics of a fundamental, as bugles do. These valves were also perfected in the mid-1800's, facilitating the rise of equal temperament.

The Boehm System of fingering mechanisms was also designed specifically with 12-tone equal temperament in mind.

A counter-example are the free-reed instruments (concertinas and accordions), which produce a timbre which clashes with equal temperament (often producing harsh combination tones). The accordion in particular outsold the guitar (all types) in the USA by 5:1 as recently as 1953, but the amplification of the acoustic guitar and the emergence of the electric guitar out-competed the accordion for the niche of loud, polyphonic dance-band instruments, in part due to the guitar's harmonic sound.

Jazz can be described in part as the extension of tonal theory to embrace the 7th harmonic, which had been largely ignored by European music theorists. As described above, Western instruments had been re-designed in the mid-1800's to fit 12-tone equal temperament, in part by dulling the 7th partial. Jazz therefore favored those instruments which enabled flexible intonation, of which the saxophone is the archetype.

Today, technical innovations such as waveguide synthesis are languishing due to the lack of a sufficiently-expressive controller. Thumtronics' Thummer offers a significant leap in expressive power, ease of learning, and creative freedom (through Dynamic Tuning).


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