Music, the Arts, and Ideas - Leonard Meyer (1967)

Leo Mey, the Music Guy

Earlier this summer, I finished reading Meyer's Music the Arts and Ideas.  Now Leonard Meyer is no slouch in the field of music theory—his classic text Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956) has been endlessly cited for convincing music theorists that there might actually be something to *gasp* empirical descriptions of musical works!

Of course, I jest; it's only half-true.  The postmodern wave in the humanities was still a decade off when Meyer published his opus (the same year as George Miller's The Magical Number Seven), and Claude Shannon's introduction of information theory was still tickling the minds of humanities scholars, who thought we might have struck on an Urtheorie of culture.  Well, the short story is: no such luck.  Humanities types retreated into hermeneutics and hyperrelativism, and that seemed to be that for the time being.  Meantime, Leonard Meyer shifted his focus to studies of musical style, since meaning was too fraught with postmodern peril.  Oh, silly academes.

Which brings us to Music, the Arts, and Ideas, published in 1967.  The book is something of a ragtag collection of essays, but there are some common threads.  Most importantly, Meyer sets out to describe how he forsees culture in the postmodern age progressing.  This happens to be exactly the age in which I was born, so I figure I have a reasonably good standpoint from which to evaluate his statements.  But oh, what statements he makes.  Get a load of this one, chosen by flipping through and pointing with my eyes closed:

Though analytic formalism and transcendental particularism are clearly in conflict regarding the efficacy of causal explanation, it should be emphasized that they do not necessarily disagree about either the existence or the nature of causation.  (p.163)

Woo-ee! now that's a humdinger there.  Meyer is an incredibly well-loved and much-missed personality, and deservedly so.  But boy does it take some effort to wade through his prose.  Here's some reader's digestif:

Easy-drinking format.

Meyer has learned from cross-cultural studies of the 20th century that sayings like "Change is the only constant" don't really apply world-wide.  Sure, in Western history from the Romans on up, we've seen a huge parade of history, a flowing river of chaotically repeating eddies and flows.  But looking around, it seems like stasis in culture is far more "normal" than the constant bustling change that we're used to in the Western world.

But what has changed, says Meyer, is that technology has grown to the point that we are able to look back and enjoy recordings of music produced forty years ago just as well as we can enjoy recordings of music produced yesterday.  All time periods and fads, all historical styles are equally accessible.

So in the end, he describes rather effectively what it looks like for culture to move to a steady-state system with local fluctuation.  He even predicts that, due to a "psychological accessibility of the past" (p191), all sorts of recycling of old culture will take place.

Is this an artist, an oeuvre, or a work?

Furthermore, we shouldn't be surprised to find that "A multiplicity of styles, techniques, and movements, ranging from the cautiously conservative to the rampantly experimental, will exist side by side… past and present will, modifying one another, come together not only within culture, but within the oeuvre of a single artist and even within a single work of art." (p209)

Sounds like remix culture to me.  More distressingly, he seems to have a certain Williamsburg, NY demographic pegged, but didn't correctly predict the ultimately uncontrolled spiral of meta-snark and strangeloops of ironic kickballing.  We can compliment ourselves for those!