some little transgressions
Joanna Newsom – Good Intentions Paving Company
In an article on This Recording nominating fifty songs as the best so far of 2010, Danish Aziz and Britney Heredia described recent music, in going through the fundamental creative process of taking elements from older work and combining them to produce something new, as developing by heterosis, a term used in genetics to mean selective breeding that produces a genetically superior offspring. Their assessment of the direction in which music is heading seems to revolve around the idea that surges in the amount of music being produced have not only necessarily expanded the variety of music available to us, but also that new music works very deliberately to break down boundaries of genre, to the point that “we say more now by what we don’t listen to than what we do.” All of this is based in optimism, indicated by the very definition of the word “heterosis”, which implies the superiority of the most recent generation to all of the preceding.
I chose a song for this post that I not only like a lot, but which I think is a pretty prime example of what the writers for This Recording meant by musical heterosis. Joanna Newsom is a harpist, pianist, and singer-songwriter whose work is described in Wire Magazine as having a certain sort of creative opulence, a freedom recalling that of literature of the post-romantic era, stemming from a liberty she allows herself in composing songs “from the ground up, with the knowledge that they were going to be long.” She continues, “The pacing of the ideas, the rate at which the ideas develop and unfold, it was all going to be different, because the songs were going to be long, from the first line I wrote.” Newsom also makes use of polyrhythm, common to sub-Saharan African music, certain classical music, and jazz, in her compositions.
I’ve put together a little playlist of music I think shows the way in which this particular song is a hybrid, if not a heterosis, of other types of music. Her lyrical vocal range and relaxed piano chords echo Joni Mitchell, while the nasal quaver of her voice is somewhere between Neil Young, Donovan’s chilling shiver and forward drive in the hit “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, and classic American bluegrass and country groups like the Carter Family. The rhythm has the same energetic complexity and propulsion, augmented by the almost percussive quality of her vibrato, as Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Judy Blue Eyes” or Love’s “Alone Again Or”. Other influences to listen for are Joan Baez and Dolly Parton.
The word “heterosis” has me thinking about the ways in which we define music today, and specifically about modern music journalism. It seems like quite a bold statement to claim that today’s music is actually a finer product than its parents, or at the very least a remarkably sanguine one. This suggestion is the only spot in This Recording’s article where any qualitative judgment is made: the authors are careful to make only simple observations – in noting that genres seem to be melding, for example – and their partiality to modern music is only revealed in the strict scientific definition of the word “heterosis”. This begs one to inquire: what about modern music is superior? I would divide this question into two parts, based on two things I think are suggested in the This Recording piece. First, is the melding of genres necessarily a positive thing, and asked another way, what is as a matter of course desirable about the breakdown of definitions that we ourselves put in place?
It is without question through the crossing of genre boundaries that we have chanced upon new ones (though not until aleatoric music was the process of “composition” as willing as genetics to happen upon creation). There are any number of obvious musical examples to support this point. In fact, what is invention at all if not the linking of several disconnected, but preexisting, elements to produce something new? (From the Latin invenire – to discover, we see that to invent is in fact to find; to simply happen upon and work with something already occurring in the world.) This process of course requires vision – an ability to see something in front of one in an unfamiliar context, and to imagine its potential to work differently for a desired effect. Any invention, composition, piece of writing, or work of art can arguably be broken down into smaller components that, in coming together, became newly useful or meaningful. As an additional point that really ought to be expanded upon, it seems clear as well that if creation is defined by this crossing of boundaries, it is defined in a word by transgression, and is on that level appealing to us for the reasons that transgression always is: it is a juxtaposition, a highlighting by contrast, a violation, a defiling of the sacred in the name of origination. A transgression is thrilling because it is fruitful destruction.
So, in asking ourselves why a melding of genres would necessarily be appealing – i.e., why someone might be inspired to praise (however subtly) today’s music for pulling this off so well – we could argue that, as the breakdown of boundaries proves inherent to the necessary union of elements that defines the creative process, such transgressions are attractive because they are the essence of creativity. It seems curious, therefore, that this process, though certainly commendable, would be grounds for a qualitative comparison between new and old music. To describe new music as remarkable solely on the basis of its ability to cross boundaries of genre is at least to misunderstand, if not to skew, the nature of art and its makers.
I would argue that this is the danger of the short, almost flippant articles that one often finds online today. To cite This Recording once again, this time in an insightful review of the century’s most important magazines, “Before it turned into a generic music magazine, the idea that you could write something, print something in a magazine you wrote with all the run-on sentences and ridiculous unprovable generalizations and slang words and anything else you wanted to, was not a brand new concept when Crawdaddy! perfected it, but it might as well have been.” In a world where opinion is no longer framed within the borders of a column, it seems more rare to find pieces of writing that take true responsibility for the statements they make. It is an effort to remind oneself to dissect pieces of journalism in which the weight of opinion within one single word is more massive than the contemplative bulk of the entire article.