Wednesday, March 01, 2006
The Useful Fiction of Genre Differentiation – and Also of Chairs and Baldness
In light of the brawl over genres and terminology in the comments section of Corey's recent posting, I feel that it is time to revisit Genre Delineation and Differentiation. And you know what that means -- time for another installment of Galen Tells You How It Is.
Let us begin by discussing the philosophical concept of Vagueness. For example, we have the word "bald," which seems to be meaningful and useful -- Patrick Steward is Bald; and we have the term "not bald" which also seems to be useful -- William Shatner is Not Bald. But where is the borderline between Bald and Not Bald? There isn't one: Baldness is an inherently Vague concept, in that tests of the boundary between Bald and Not Bald are necessarily inconclusive. (Incidentally, Epistemicists would disagree with my claim, arguing that the apparent Vagueness is a result of our ignorance to the precise boundary -- that a person with X hairs is Bald but a person with X+1 hairs is Not Bald, we just haven't been smart enough to figure out the value of X yet. Most philosophers reject this approach, as do I, but if you find it persuasive I would encourage you to investigate it further. Supervaluationism seems to me to hold a lot more promise. There's a good article on this whole subject at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vagueness/ ) Vagueness is also know as the Sorities Paradox, after the ancient Greek formulation of the Paradox of the Heap, which provides another handy illustration. One or two grains of sand is not a heap, but 5,000 grains is – if you start taking grains away from the 5,000 grain pile, when does it stop being a heap?
Obviously, the degree of Vagueness is inversely proportional to the degree of specificity in your definition. "Poverty" is both a technical, legal term referring to incomes below a certain cutoff point, and so in its legal sense is fairly precise; "poverty" in the more general social and conversational sense is, however, quite Vague. In addition to degrees of Vagueness, concepts also have degrees of Generality: Baldness is a General category while "Patrick Stewart, who played Jean Luc Picard in Star-Trek," is not. Baldness is both general and Vague, but interestingly "the set of all prime numbers" is General without being Vague. A huge proportion of the words we use are Vague to one extent or another -- including "huge" and "words," for example -- because for most purposes imprecise definitions are either perfectly adequate or the only way to talk about the stuff we need to be able to talk about. Try to come up with a definition of "chair" which includes everything you want to refer to as a "chair" and excludes everything you don't want to refer to as a "chair." In fact, I would go so far as to say that, strictly speaking, "chairs" don't exist, but there are enough collections of atoms that are similar enough in form and function that a Vague definition and conceptualization which enables us to have a conversation is pretty useful. We might reasonably declare that “Chairs are a useful fiction.” Musical Genres are highly Vague, but they too are useful fictions.
Our brains naturally look for patterns, group stuff together into things and categories of things, and we do the same with music. “The Well Tempered Clavier” is neither very vague nor very general. “All of the music written by J.S. Bach” is more general, but not much more vague (arguably, issues such as Bach’s harmonizations of existing chorales might introduce some Vagueness). The Vagueness of other categories is somewhat varied, though. “String Quartets” is not very vague, since almost all String Quartets are for two violins, one viola, and one cello. “Piano Trios” is not much more vague, since even though the two non-pianos might be selected from a wide variety of instruments, one of the three has to be a piano, and there have to be two other instruments as well. “Orchestra Music” is much more Vague, since the minimum number of instruments is not clear, and what kinds of groups of what kinds of instruments qualify is arguable as well. One violin is not an orchestra, but 50 violins are – where’s the cutoff? 50 violins are an orchestra, but what about 50 pairs of claves? I suspect different people would answer differently. Moving from instrument groups to issues of form, a “Strict Canon” is not very vague, whereas “Fugue” and “Sonata” are -- what’s the minimum amount of imitation before it stops being a fugue? -- and the Sonata Allegro form was never as clearly delineated and official as we would find it convenient to believe: when is the piece not a Sonata any more? Those examples are not so hard to accept as fundamentally Vague, and at the same time, it’s awfully useful to be able to use those terms. Recognizing that Genre classifications exhibit varying degrees of Vagueness solves a number of the problems we have in arguing about whose music should be given which label. “Strict Twelve-tone Music” is not very vague – if you break the rules it doesn’t qualify, but plain old “Twelve-tone” or “Serialist” music are Vague categories – where is the cutoff between “non-strict serialist music” and “non-serialist music that has some serialist elements”? Serialism makes a good bridge issue because it’s both a formal category and a Stylistic category; when we move all the way into Style and Genre, people really start to get exercised. Where are the cutoffs between Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, and Totalism? Between Classical and Romantic? Between Classical and Popular? The boundaries are fundamentally Vague – but just as Orchestra Music and Chamber Music are Vague but still useful and valid, these three genre names are useful and valid.
Genre delineation is primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive: we group individual pieces into genre categories based on some sort of imprecise critical mass of the number of similarities between their Salient Superficialities. You can recognize a minimalist piece because it tends to be highly repetitive, fairly harmonically static, and often has a steady pulse. You can recognize a Baroque piece by the kinds of harmonic language employed, the contrapuntal rules followed, and the instrumentation. Since our aesthetic sensibilities are based on the Salient Superficialities of the music, it’s useful to perform these kinds of groupings and to name the groups – if I love the music of Philip Glass the probability that I will like music by Steve Reich is pretty high, whereas the probability that I will like the music of Gyorgi Ligeti is not so high. I happen to like all three, but it’s because my taste is larger than a single genre rather than because my analytical model is flawed.) Grouping music into named genres merely formalizes the processes that our brains are already doing. At the same time, however, we must recognize that genres are Vague, and that the fundamental Vagueness of the boundaries between them makes attempting to force music at those boundaries into one category or the other is doomed to failure. In fact, it’s even more problematic to make such attempts in music than in, for instance, identifying who’s bald and who isn’t, because the nature of the evolution of creative practices that the practitioners explore and push at the edges of the boundaries. There’s Classical music and there’s Popular music, to return to the contested issues of the past few days, but the boundary between the two is very wide and very Vague. Understanding the relationship of the music at the boundary to the music on either side is interesting and useful – trying to decide between the two categories is not.
In closing, I would like to propose some guidelines for The Ethical Use of Genre Delineation, which I will place at the beginning of the Comments to save space out here.