Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Aesthetic obsolescence and paradigm shifts in Hindustani music I

At a recent event (December 2014) to release the CDs of two young Hindustani musicians, I had observed as follows:

A period of 30 years appears appropriate as defining a generation with respect to our musical culture. The first post-independence generation of Hindustani musicians, which appeared on the stage in the mid 1970s was performing music largely under the shadow of the pre-independence generation. This could explain why Hindustani music experienced shrinkage of audiences during the last quarter of the 20th century. The second post-independence generation emerging on the concert platform now (2010-2015), is exhibiting a perceptible freedom from the shadow of the pre-independence generation. They appear to be addressing their own generation of listeners more effectively, and drawing young audiences back into the concert halls.

Please see: The Emerging Generation of Khayal Vocalists

After I finished my speech, several young musicians approached me to say that they did not fully understand my argument. I promised to explain myself in greater detail at a later stage. This essay is intended to fulfill the promise made to my young friends that evening. But, it is also an opportunity for me to submit my public statements to rigorous scrutiny.

I wish to relate this issue to the observations I have made on an allied subject in my first book – Hindustani music: A tradition in transition (DK Printworld, New Delhi 2005). I summarize them here:

ONE: The Hindustani music tradition is so designed that, knowingly or unknowingly, every musician is a product of his generation, speaks on behalf of his generation, and addresses primarily his own generation of listeners. Implicitly, therefore, every musician’s music “shuts out” audiences belonging to a generation behind him, and a generation ahead of him.

TWO: Despite the fundamental stability of the “Operating System” governing Hindustani music, there is no such thing as “timeless music”. On the contrary, there is evidence to establish aesthetic obsolescence as a phenomenon which pushes the music of a certain past generation out of circulation, and allows more recent music to reach music lovers. The departed generation eased out of the market, however, retains a marginal presence in the market as academic reference material – perhaps a virtual “Guru”.

THREE:  Running counter to aesthetic obsolescence, there exists a phenomenon of “aesthetic sclerosis” among Hindustani music audiences, which makes listeners above a certain age (I suggested 50/55) unable to accept the musical values of the emerging generation of musicians (+/- 30).  I have also observed that elderly audiences retain lifelong loyalty to the musical values to which they were exposed between the ages of 20 and 50. And, as Indians are increasingly living longer, it is this phenomenon that sustains the market for recordings of vintage/ archival music.

I attempt a scrutiny of these observations by drawing upon profound anthropological and historical thought, and also on relevant macro-economic research.

The Method of Generations in History

Jose Ortega Y Gasset is regarded as one of the most influential European philosophers of the 20th century. I draw upon his landmark work “Man and Crisis” (George, Allen & Unwin, London, 1959) for his perspective on history as a product of inter-generational interactions.

Extracts from “Man and Crisis”

 “Community of date and space are the primary attributes of a generation. Together, they signify the sharing of an essential destiny. The keyboard of environment on which coevals play the Sonata Apassionata of their lives is in its fundamental structure one and the same. This identity of destiny produces in coevals certain secondary coincidences which are summed up in the unity of their style. A generation is an integrated manner of existence or, if you prefer, a fashion of living, which fixes itself indelibly on the individual…

“In the “today”, in every “today”, various generations co-exist and the relations which are established between them according to the different conditions of their ages, represent the dynamic system of attractions and repulsions, of agreement and controversy, which at any given moment makes up the reality of historic life. The concept of generations, converted into a method of historic investigation consists in nothing more than projecting the structure upon the past.

“A generation is the aggregate of men who are the same age. …. The concept of age is not (however) the stuff of mathematics, but of life. Age, then, is not a date but a zone of dates.”

For understanding the historical process as an interaction between various co-existing generations, he proposes the following analysis of generations:

ONE: Lives can be divided into five phases of approximately fifteen years each. (1) Childhood: 0-15, (2) Youth: 15-30, (3) Initiation: 30-45, (4) Dominance: 45-60, (5) Old age: 60+. In some ways, Ortega suggests, the face of the world changes every 15 years. However, he classifies the third and fourth stages, representing the 30-year period from age 30 to 60 as the historically significant phases of an individual’s/ generation’s life.

TWO: In his 30’s man acquaints himself with the world into which he has fallen, and in which he must live. Between 30 and 45, he begins to react on his own account against the world that he has encountered, starts to reshape his world, and learns to defend it against the generations that rule it. Between 45 and 60, he devotes himself fully to the development of the inspirations he has received between 30 and 45. The period of 30-45 is his period of gestation, creation and conflict, while the period between 45 and 60 is his stage for achieving dominance and command over his world.

The Ortega perspective implies that, after accounting for imperceptible changes that are taking place constantly because of the interaction between various co-existing generations, a perceptible change, a paradigm shift, can be expected to surface every 60 years. This is because all the forces acting upon the values of the earlier generations have, by now, either faded away or become impotent.

This implication would support my observation that the second post-independence generation of Hindustani musicians (emerging 60+ years after independence) is charting a new path, which may create some dissonance among their senior generations of listeners.

Ortega describes the 30-45 stage as representing strategy development and the 45-60 phase as that for strategy implementation. This description matches the widely held belief about the evolution of Hindustani musicianship. It is well articulated by the contemporary maestro, Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, in the Foreword to my book – “Khayal Vocalism – Continuity within Change” (DK Printworld, New Delhi, 2009), and also his interview carried in the book.

“Today, a vocalist – if he is good – is exposed to public scrutiny right in the middle of the most vulnerable stage of his evolution – the stage when he is struggling to break out of the shell of his training, and to make his own original statement. … Even with the best of training, the process of self-discovery in a vocalist matures only around the age of 40”.

Briefly, then, we are looking at three periodicities implicit in Ortega’s argument as being relevant for plotting the generational dimension of change in Hindustani music:

ONE:  Human life is most meaningfully divided into five stages of 15 years each. As a reflection of this, the face of the world changes in some way every 15 years.
TWO: Historic changes can be expected to become evident every 60 years.
THREE: The 30-year period between the ages of 30 and 60 is the historically most significant period in the life of each generation.

By Ortega’s own argument, the clue to these periodicities of perceptible or imperceptible change lies in the “keyboard of environment on which coevals play the Sonata Apassionata of their lives [which] is in its fundamental structure one and the same”.

The keyboard of the environment

It appears fair to argue that culture is substantially a reflection of the economic environment in which each generation seeks to express its unique destiny. In the light of this hypothesis, it seems appropriate to examine empirical evidence and theoretical constructs related to the patterns of economic activity. Specifically, we should be looking for evidence of periodicities of 15, 30, and 60 years postulated by Ortega in patterns of economic change. The various theories of business cycles are relevant from this perspective.

Business cycle or economic cycles are waves formed by the expansion and contraction of economic activity. Our argument can be that the cultural manifestations of buoyant economic activity would be substantially different of depressed economic activity. As an extension of this argument, we may also argue that each phase of expansion and contraction will leave behind some cultural residues, which carry forward into the next upswing/ downswing. But when a society has seen the complete long wave of contraction and expansion, it will emerge from the experience with a changed perception of itself, and its arts will exhibit signs of a paradigm shift.

Theory and evidence of economic cycles

ONE: In the 19th century, Clement Juglar first identified a cycle of 7-11 years signified by accelerated or retarded societal investments in fixed assets. Juglar did not, however, claim any regularity for these waves.

TWO: In the 20th century, Simon Kuznets identified a cycle of 15-25 years, signified by the expansion and contraction of societal investments in infrastructure (also called the
“building cycle”).

THREE:  In 1947, Edward Dewey and Edwin Dakin identified a 54-year cycle, based on a statistical analysis of wholesale prices in the US.

FOUR: In 1925, Nikolai Kondratieff estimated a long business cycle of 50-60 years, based on a study of trends in commodity prices, interest rates, wages, production, coal consumption, private savings, gold production, as well as political trends from 1790 to 1920. Kondratieff’s work also established that each expansion of economic activity is associated with the emergence of productivity enhancing technological innovations. Because of the comprehensiveness of the phenomena considered, Kondratieff’s work is also the most significant cyclical formulation from the cultural perspective.

The Kondratieff model has been confirmed by rigorous statistical testing, using spectral analysis. These procedures also suggest that each Kondratieff wave subsumes three sub-cycles of 17 years each, partially supporting the Kuznets suggestion of shorter cycles of 15-25 years.

The implications of this refresher course in macro-economics for our subject of enquiries are as follows:

ONE: Ortega’s suggestion of 60 years as the fulfillment of a generation’s historic mission would result in the appearance of a paradigm shift every 60 years. This finds support in the 50-60 year cycle of economic activity observed by Kondratieff, Dewey and Dakin.

TWO: The shorter 17-year sub-cycles within the Kondratieff long wave support Ortega’s observation that our world is changing in some ways every 15 years because the stages of human life are most meaningfully seen as periods of 15 years each.

THREE: The Kondratieff long cycle is 50-60 years will tend to represent 25-30 years of contraction and 25-30 years of expansion in economic activity. This would support Ortega’s view of the 30-year period (age 30-60) as being the historically most significant period in the life of each generation.

While viewing these indications of periodicity, it is important to recall Ortega’s own observation that “The concept of age is not (however) the stuff of mathematics, but of life. Age, then, is not a date but a zone of dates.” 

Corroborating this perspective, economists studying economic cycles have not been able to assess the occurrence of peaks and troughs with astronomical precision. But, their attempts have certainly been respectable considering the fluidity of social and historical processes. Keeping this in mind, an attempt may be made to represent this concept graphically.

A conceptual-graphic model of generational shifts

The model is not intended to either prove or establish any theory pertaining to the periodicity of perceptible changes in musical values. It attempts merely to demonstrate the interactions between the various significant participants, creating an interplay of continuity and change.

Five historically significant roles are considered in this model. (1) The performer generation (2) The Guru generation to the performer which is 30 years senior to him (3) The traditional Benchmark of musicianship which may be the Guru's Guru or other influential musicians -- 60 years senior to the performer (4) Rival to the Performing generation which is partly his own generation and partly his senior generation, and (5) the audience of the Performing musician which we assume to be the same as the performing generation. 

Following a combination of Ortega and Kondratieff arguments, the model divides the time-scale into distinct 15-year periods, with two of these consecutive periods constituting a significant 30-year generation with respect to all participants in the musical culture. The point to remember here is we are not talking of a generation as a birth-to-death duration, but a 30-year time span which is historically the most significant for the performance of each generation. Each generation has been given a number for ease of comprehension.

The emerging pattern

G-1, the performing generation of 1925-1955, begins to perform the Guru role for G-2, and continues to do so for G-3 and G-4, and thereafter becomes the Benchmark generation, with decreasing influence till G-5.  By G-6, it has fallen totally off the radar of the musical culture.

The Guru generation of G-1 (1895-1925) retains part of its influence as a Guru for G-2, and then drifts into the Benchmark area through G2- and G-3, drifting into insignificance thereafter.

The Benchmark generation of G-1 (1880-1895) remains partly relevant as a Benchmark for G-2 and fades into history thereafter.

The Rival generation of G-1 (1910-1940) becomes a part of the Guru generation in G-2 and thereafter remains relevant, with diminishing influence, till G-4 as a Benchmark generation.

The Audience generation of G-1 (1925-1955) remains an influential force for G-2, and thereafter gives way to younger audiences.

By the time we come to the Performing generation G-6 (2015-2030), none of the generations of participants of G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, and G-5 have any historically significant influence. The world has changed far too much between 1955 and 2015 for the musical values of G-1 to either to exist, or to deserve an audience. A paradigm shift is to be expected.

The structuring of this conceptual-graphic model merely happens to deliver a paradigm shift expectation in approximately 60 years. It could have been 50, 70 or even 80 years. The exact periodicity is not as important as is demonstration of aesthetic obsolescence and periodic paradigm shifts.

© Deepak S. Raja 2015