Overweening Generalist

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Robert Sapolsky and Me and Musical Tastes, the Pursuit of Novelty, and Something on the Free-Floating Unattached Intellectuals

In a gem of an essay, titled "Open Season" by Robert Sapolsky, culled in his book Monkeyluv: and Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals he recounts the very annoying administrative assistant he had whose work was superb but the 20 year old seemed absurdly open-minded when it came to music:

"He'd be hunched over his computer, his CD recorder blasting away something horrendous by whatever group twenty-year-olds are listening to. That was fine; while it could be scientifically proven that his music was inferior to what my generation listened to, it was his prerogative to listen to nothing but that junk. What was irritating was that he didn't just listen to that. Sonic Youth for hours and then suddenly, late Beethoven.  And then Grand Ole Opry. He kept switching what he listened to. Gregorian chants, Shostakovich, John Coltrane. Big-band hits, Yma Sumac. Puccini arias, Pygmy hunting songs. Philip Glass, klezmer classics. He was spending the first paychecks of his life in methodical exploration of new types of music, giving them a careful listening, forming opinions, hating some of the stuff, loving the process." 

[Full disclosure: Sapolsky is not only a brilliant neurobiologist, lecturer, and baboonologist, he's one of our best Third Culture writers, and he's really funny. I love all his books. He's got a knack for relating very abstruse scientific ideas with clarity and humor. I literally laugh out loud when I read his books. So: I'm biased here.]

The 20 year old was absurdly open minded in a lot of other ways, too, and it bothered Sapolsky because it reminded him how closed he'd become. He loves all Mahler, but admits he keeps listening to the same two symphonies. He loves reggae, but it's really the same Greatest Hits tape from Bob Marley all the time. As a neurobiologist, what accounts for this? Is it normal? If so, why? Is there a general age in which people stop being open to new things? He sets to find out, and it turns out that "We found that most people are twenty years old or younger when first hearing the popular music they choose to listen to for the rest of their lives." 

I'll pause for a moment to let you think about this.
Is there a window before we close down to novelty? Yes, it looks like "if you are more than thirty-five years old when some new popular music is introduced, there's a greater than 95 percent chance that you will never listen to the stuff."

Okay, I was well over 35 when I fell in love with Radiohead. But is that "new popular music"? It felt like it to me when I bought OK Computer. But I remember thinking there seemed like an occult debt they had to Pink Floyd. Still, I loved that record. (Yes, I still say "record.") Then I got the earlier Pablo Honey, which had "Creep" on it; I was surprised I knew a song by them already: it had been on the radio station I associated with listeners who were younger than me. I felt sorta cool. How did I first get into Radiohead? 

I had read they were great. By all kinds of people. I went into a CD emporium in Torrance, California and asked the 20 year old (a guess) if Radiohead was any good and he said - I remember this clearly - that they were the greatest band ever!, and led me to their CDs. Any one I should try first? Yea, OK Computer. Okay. And I was blown away. And I felt like I was listening to something new; I was growing. I hadn't lost it. This was long before I had read Sapolsky's essay...

Time to get another Radiohead CD. This time I chose The Bends. I distinctly remember thinking, after the first two listens-through, that this was their best yet. As I continued to play it over and over (mostly in my car as I drove around Los Angeles, then later Berkeley and San Francisco), that this was as good as Abbey Road
Then I bought Kid A and Hail To The Thief. That was a wake-up. If you don't know Radiohead, they are one of the very rare bands that, doing well, having "made it" with a certain sound, they kept their integrity and went in another direction: damn the fans who want the same kinds of songs! We are artists and now we like making this relatively non-melodic, cacophonous, electronic-and-brass somewhat formless whateveryoucallit music!

I have tried to like those two CDs, but it's difficult. They are completely different animals than the three I already owned and loved. I expected Radiohead to "stick with the formula," I guess. 

I also guessed I was getting old.
At the same time I deeply admired their willingness to alienate me.

Why do I accept Beethoven sounding almost like he was born in 1890 and not 1770 when I listen to the late quartets? Because Beethoven is part of "the canon" of Western classical music, and you have to expect that with long-accepted geniuses.

No, that's a lousy answer. It doesn't address the issue.

My best answer: I subconsciously accepted that Beethoven was part of the canon, and we must expect to be challenged by High Culture; it might get exceedingly difficult. But with popular music, I think I also subconsciously relate it to what I listened to by around age 20, as Sapolsky said. It should be easy and fun...like my music was when I was 20! Radiohead, on the surface, sounded unique compared to anything I had heard and loved that was contemporary for me at age 20, but on those first three CDs there were song forms, hooks, riffs, distorted guitars, and melodies that were not out of bounds and were recognizable. I enjoyed their periods of extreme dissonance and temporary breakdowns into noise, but it always resolved quickly. That was "out there" but not out-of-bounds, apparently, to some part of my nervous system I seemed not all that acquainted with.
I started reading about Radiohead and their fans. I quickly found out the ones who loved Kid A and Hail To The Thief would rather not have anything to do with those of us who much preferred The Bends and were a bit baffled by the "new" Radiohead sounds. Which reminds me of Sapolsky.
You were between 28 to 39 before your window for trying exotic cuisine closed. You were between 18 and 23, and then your tongue studs, navel and genital piercing window closed. Why was this? Sapolsky tried applying neurobiological data, but none of it fit the data he'd collected. There is certainly no Novelty Center in the brain. So he looked into Psychology. 

"In a critical finding, the psychologist  Dean Keith Simonton has shown that the creative output and openness to others' novelty among the great minds comes with a twist - the decline isn't predicted by the person's age as much as by how long the person has worked in one discipline. Scholars who switch disciplines seem to get their openness rejuvenated. It's not chronological age, but 'disciplinary' age."

Let this be my attempt at a choice tidbit for the committed FFUIs out there. We have numerous "disciplines," and I can only surmise, via rigorous logic, that we will stay open-minded forever!
Wait a minute: I haven't answered the music question very well, based on Sapolsky and his research and my own introspections, have I? Okay: it's well-known that scientific paradigms don't really get going until most of the Old Guard - maybe some are geniuses, but they are committed to the Old Paradigm too - they, uh, die off. It turns out, based on more of Simonton's work, that achieving eminence in a field is pretty much a death knell for openness to others' ideas in your field. (I'd just like to note here that Noam Chomsky was born in 1928, and his bombshell book in linguistics dropped in 1957, when he was 29 or so; George Lakoff was born in 1941. His book, Metaphors We Live By, co-written with Mark Johnson and which finally represented a clean break from Chomsky's linguistic paradigm, was published in 1980.)
Using Judith Rich Harris's work, Sapolsky wonders if this relates to the age/paradigm problem in science, because Harris shows how, at adolescence, peer groups want to define who they are largely by who they are not: they are not the older ones, especially: "So when you're fifteen, a key desire for you and your peers is to make it abundantly clear that you bear no resemblance to any age group that came before, and you seize upon whatever cultural outrage your generation has concocted. And a quarter century later, that same generational identification makes you cling to it - 'Why should I listen to this new junk? Our music was good enough when we were defeating Hitler/liking Ike/having sex at Woodstock.'"
Delving further into the question, Sapolsky finds sociobiological/evolutionary psychological reasons why maybe we close to novelty and consolidate the Good Old Stuff, the Best Stuff: Cro-Magnons did better than Neanderthals because they lived about 50 percent longer. The old ones were likely to have had experience and knowledge about the last time the food sources dried up and how they solved the problem. A loving for that which is familiar may be a trait that has helped us survive.
After Sapolsky first published "Open Season" in The New Yorker in 1998, he received many letters from octogenarians about to take their hang-gliding lesson that they were not like those people in the article, and that comforted Sapolsky. And it comforts me, but it does set me to wondering about my own cussedness, and where I might be not as open as I would like to be. I think I'm far more open-minded than most of the people my age, but I worry.

Is worrying about such a thing a sign that I'm still, relatively speaking, open-minded? The manifest ideas of the FFUI seem to virtually mandate a basic neophilic stance toward the world, while probably 80 percent of the population tends toward the neophobic. But this blogspew has meandered too long, and I will get into these ideas sometime after Bastille Day but before Halloween, unless I'm killed by some errant 80 year old hang gliding into my bedroom while I sleep; how's that for commitment?

[By the way: today I listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Jimi Hendrix; and J.S. Bach. I had no idea I was going to write on this subject later in the day. If I had planned this post - something I rarely do - I might have gone out of my way to pop in my Ornette Coleman/Karlheinz Stockhausen/Imrat Khan/Klezmatics/hammered dulcimer CDs. I hope you're enjoying feeling smug, having listened to Between The Buried And Me or Balinese monkey music today. You're making me nervous...]


ARW23 said...

I find this tragic: "If you are more than thirty-five old when some new popular music is introduced, there's a greater than 95 percent chance that you will never listen to the stuff." It sounds, to me, as if someone has stopped living and experiencing the world after the age of 35. I fell in love with Eminem and 50 Cents in my forties. Me like rap? I surprised myself. Rap music used to irritate me when it first came out. But after I listened closer to some lyrics and started to understand the socio/eco/political context of it I started to accept it as a message and a new form of musical expression. And it felt liberating and made me feel younger mentally.

I also fell in love with Metalica in my forties.

Q: If this 35 years old line/border/limit apply to music, does it also apply to books?

Therefore, I find this very "Shady": "There is certainly no Novelty Center in the brain." (???) (I know my brain is old, but still......)

michael said...

Nice pun with Eminem and then "Shady"!

I found I loved the Beastie Boys' CD Paul's Boutique well into my 40s. They're hilarious! And they sampled from what, 120 sources?

The "windows" that Sapolsky wrote about should not be confused with hardcore intransigent, unbreakable windows: they are statistical numbers, and if you read his essay (highly recommended) he mentions in the postscript this:

"And as for my own closing to cultural novelty? Prompted by carrying out this study and with advice from Paul, my assistant, I started listening to the music of someone who was certifiably of his generation, not mine. It was terrific; I love it, listen to it all the time now. But I noted that by that mere act, I destroyed the cachet of trendiness that the music had among the students in my lab - none of them would be caught dead listening to it now. So this artist will go unnamed, in the interest of not ruining the person's career."

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I listened to a bunch of Ornette Coleman today. I wonder how his music can assist one at metaprogramming.

michael said...

@RAR1132: I know when I listen to free jazz after around 1959 I start playing more "harmelodically" when I improvise; it's very liberating. The collection of habits that have to do with playing diatonically, tonally, in one key and a scale or two that seem to fit the chords: that goes out the window for awhile, as if my basic music imprint was temporarily suspended.

But the imprints always reassert themselves. Maybe because I'm afraid of getting so far out there I can't find my way back?

I'm also always surprised when I find out I can just solo freely with chromatics, stacked chords, arpeggios over distantly related chords, staying with one odd figure while the chords change, only shifting rhythmic emphasis with a phrase, etc. Why am I always surprised? It's as if playing that way is a different but related conscious state...

Certainly, just listening to Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Ornette, et.al breaks "set."

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I find it interesting how listening to music effects my imagination, heartbeat, breathing, etc. I listened to a lot of Roscoe Mitchell and George Strait this weekend, and I think this affected me vibrationally, whatever that means.

I've rarely play "free" type music during the past twenty years, but I dearly love the Art Ensemble, Ornette, etc.