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Saturday morning quotes 6.6: Innovation

June 25, 2016

Castrol guitarTracing the continuum of history, we see evidence of innovations in music and adaptations to instruments and vocal technique in order to take advantage of an ever expanding musical vocabulary.  Innovations have occurred and will occur as long as thinking persons interact, employ the little grey cells, and dare to experiment with received ideas.  But does innovation always result in refinement?   And does innovation necessarily require outright rejection of accumulated wisdom?  One can say it depends upon whose innovation is under consideration, and it depends upon a careful examination of their motives.  By way of illustration, we humbly self-quote from a previous post:

“History is indeed a continuum that is interrupted from time to time when those with an axe to grind wield said axe to chop away a segment, rewrite it to suit their purpose, and paste it back in place with skewed alignment.”

“Innovation” appears to be a (possibly trademarked) buzzword currently in use by the tech industry and their counterparts, an issue to which we’ll return.  But first, we must dip into definition in order to identify innovation as it appears along the continuum of historical music, and to understand which segments we choose to excise and label as historically “correct”, and why.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives the primary definition of innovation as “The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.” Interestingly, innovation was formerly seen in a less favorable light, or as a sly and underhanded mode of deception.  In Shakespeare’s The First Part of King Henry the Fourth (1598), Act V: Scene i, King Henry chides the Earl of Worcester for what he sees as an unnecessary insurrection: “As now we meet. You have deceived our trust, And made us doff our easy robes of peace…”:

These things indeede you haue articulated,
Proclaim’d at Market Crosses, read in Churches,
To face the Garment of Rebellion
With some fine colour, that may please the eye
Of fickle Changelings, and poore Discontents,
Which gape, and rub the Elbow at the newes
Of hurly burly Innouation:
And neuer yet did Insurrection want
Such water‑colours, to impaint his cause:
Nor moody Beggars, staruing for a time
Of pell‑mell hauocke, and confusion.

A hurly burly innovation indeed.  In the 20th century, innovation took on a less undesirable meaning in a distinctly commercial context, and the OED defines innovation in the more current 21st-century sense of the word as “The action of introducing a new product into the market; a product newly brought on to the market.”  This new sense of the term lent legitimacy to the rejection of the old and the embracing of new ideas as a positive step.  But here is the point at which large-scale commercialism overtakes incremental common sense.  Innovation tends to reject precedent, and those who cling to the past are considered conservative.

We have seen that a person can be conservative about certain technological innovations, yet very forward-looking concerning theoretical ideas.  Vincenzo Galilei (c.1520 – 1591), lutenist, music theorist and famous as the father of Galileo, is known for his role in advancing the more expressive solo song, paving the way for the likes of Caccini and Monteverdi. But Vincenzo scoffed at the idea of adding bass strings to the more conventional six-course lute; a modification which he saw as an unnecessary mechanical simplification of a perfect instrument.

Or take the case of mathematician John Wallis (1616 – 1703) who studied musical temperament and the properties of vibrating strings.  In his letter, “Concerning the Strange Effects reported of Musick in Former Times, beyond what is to be found in Later Ages”, Wallis speculated that perhaps music that was tuned and tempered in just intonation might evoke the kind of moral reaction in listeners as described by Plato.  That is, assuming that the ancients weren’t just simpletons with a tendency toward exaggeration in their idealistic descriptions.  This is another example of a forward-looking scientist looking backward to test innovation against precedent.

Is innovation always good?  It depends upon whether innovation retains its former derogatory sense, which it does when an idea is driven solely by commercial interest with no consideration for the consequence of change.

“It matters little whether or not an innovation has a great degree of advantage over the idea it is replacing. What does matter is whether the individual perceives the relative advantage of the innovation.”

– Everett M. Rogers (1931 – 2004), Diffusion of Innovations, Free Press of Glencoe, New York, 1962.

So here we are.  Innovation for innovation’s sake promoted by and for commercial interests. A thinking person who values the aesthetics of historical music would take pause and consider the value of innovations on a case-by-case basis.  Those of us involved in recreating the aesthetics of the past are probably more rightly engaged in renovation rather than innovation.

As mentioned above, “innovation” is a concept and a buzz-word for new ideas meant to repair age-old problems.  Really?  We leave you with the compelling insights of Thomas Frank from his book, Listen, Liberal, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2016.

“…The last fifteen years have been a golden age of financial and software innovation, but they have been feeble in terms of GDP growth.  In ideological terms, however, innovation definitely works: as a way of excusing soaring inequality and explaining the exalted status of the rich, it is the best we’ve got.”

“In truth, however, nothing is inevitable and very little is new.  And tech is no more the root of the problem than are trade or globalization.  Many of our most vaunted innovations are simply methods—electronic or otherwise—of pulling off some age-old profit-maximizing maneuver by new and unregulated means.  Sometimes they are designed to accomplish things that would be regulated or even illegal under other circumstances, or else they are designed to alter relationships of economic power in some ingenious way—to strip away this or that protection from workers or copyright holders, for example.”

“Consider the many celebrated business innovations that are, in reality, nothing more than instruments to get around our society’s traditional middle-class economic arrangements.  Uber is the most obvious example: much of its value comes not from the efficiencies in taxi-hailing that it has engineered but rather from the way it allows the company to circumvent state and local rules having to do with safety and sometimes insurance.”

“The circumvention strategy is everywhere in inno-land once you start looking for it.  Airbnb allows consumers and providers to get around various safety and zoning rules with which conventional hotels must comply.  Amazon allows customers in many places to avoid paying sales taxes.  The circumvention strategy isn’t restricted to software innovations, either.  One of the great attractions of credit default swaps—a big financial innovation of the last decade—is that they were completely unregulated.”

– 209

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