The Smart Set

A management consulting firm called Synectics came out this week with a publicity-stunt “survey” of the top 100 living “geniuses.” If you’re keeping score, Philip Glass tops the musical world, coming in at #9. The rock contingent shows a decided baby-boomer bias. Jazz? No geniuses left, apparently. Dolly Parton squeaks in at #94, though.

Lists like this tend to be pretty silly, and this one is worse than most, with a methodology so flimsy that I question this firm’s proficiency at consulting anybody on anything. But the survey does point up something interesting. The first criterion on Synectics’ list of five defining traits of genius is that old favorite, paradigm shifting. And I realized that paradigm shifting might just be the one thing that unites the past century or two of music history.

The term “paradigm shift” became famous from Thomas Kuhn’s 1970 study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Notice the word choice, though: not scientific process, or discovery, but revolution. That’s a post-Romantic bias revealed right in the title, but the effects of Romantic thinking (heck, let’s gild the lily and call it the Romantic Revolution) are so deeply ingrained in modern society that we don’t even see it. That might be why 20th and 21st-century music history seems so fragmented and variegated: we take for granted the one universal feature, the way every turn of the musical wheel—jazz, atonality, minimalism, rock, historically-informed performance, neo-Romanticism, &c.—claims (or is claimed) to have shifted some paradigm or another.

I don’t think this is by definition good or bad, it’s just an observation: the societies we live in are, at their core, products of the Romantic era, and I don’t see that influence ebbing anytime soon. (In a lot of ways, it’s bound up with the spread and solemnization of democratic processes.) But it is a big change from, say, the 1600s, when a composer like Sweelinck was widely recognized as a genius, not because he was an innovator, not because he was a revolutionary, but because he did what everyone else was doing so much better than everyone else did. That’s a contrast with the current touchstone for musical genius, Beethoven. It’s an open question whether Beethoven’s innovations were popular, or whether Beethoven was popular because his penchant for innovation so well embodied fashionable Romantic ideas. I suspect the latter—the really inventive late stuff didn’t gain very much traction at the time. But his is the kind of impact that musicians of all stripes are still, consciously or subconsciously, being judged against.


  1. Good post–thanks. I know in bebop there was a lot of anxiety about missing the next revolution; Ornette Coleman literally scared a lot of us in 1959. Not LaMonte Young, though, then still living in Berkeley and playing some jazz; when I ran into him on Telegraph Avenue (we’d met, glancingly, through mutual friends) and asked what he thought of Ornette, his reply–still the single hippest thing anyone’s ever said to me–was: “Man, why does he play all that old-fashioned shit?”


  2. How that is some silly stuff. “How do we know that Leonardo De Vinci is a genius?” Because we were taught so in grade school. Most of this is about fame more than genius. And, “What is genius?” that’s no so hard , just read Schopenhauer. He sums it up all very neatly in about 1500 pages. I guess that shows some Romantic bias.I’m not sure I would lump Kuhn in with the Romantics. A lot of people do, but usually, as here, on account of the title and the use of ‘revolution.’ But as much as I try, I can’t think of a better title. (although I think “Who Moved My Phlogiston” would have been a good one). “The Structure of Scientific Process” is not accurate given the subject of the book, since it is the process, which he describes as ‘normal science,’ which gets discarded with a paradigm shift. “Discovery” suffers from similar problems, since one of Kuhn’s points is that it is not discovery or observation, but a sea change in the epistemological framework that is the hallmark of of the paradigm shift. He has some excellent examples showing how observations often agree more fully with the old schema well into the acceptance of the new. It seems that people are often eager to appropriate Kuhn’s views into their own (notably Richard Rorty from whom Kuhn himself) so it may be more likely that our reading of him shows our own romantic bias. Off to dephlogisticate myself with some coffee.


  3. While I would agree with you in general that the construction of innovation as a mark of genius is a post-Romantic mania, it is important to remember that there were innovators, paradigm-shifters in all the arts who were specifically praised (and denigrated) as such in pre-Romantic milieux: Monteverdi providing the example closest to Beethoven’s I think, in the profundity of his shift in idiom and means and its subsequent affect on musical discourse. We have only to look at the cranky mutterings of Artusi to see (in negative) how fascinated people were by that novelty and how threatening they found it. While the Romantic sense of the artist’s own “tortured” psyche as an important part both of innovation and of genius had not yet been developed in that period(though we retroactively animate Gesualdo according to those principles), you do already get an early form of reverence for and excitement about the new, the “curious,” the “phantastical” — and, in England, even the bizarrely “melancholic” — which are quite important and marked antecedents of modern, post-Romantic, attitudes toward genius and innovation. This is simply to suggest that the production of modern notions of genius was a more involved, spotty process than is sometimes acknowledged.mta


  4. Pre-historically, tribes fought with each other. After thousands of years of scientific, political, artistic and religious “revolutions” we entered the Atomic era, where tribes fight with each other.Viewing the whole thing from the rim of my Guinness, it seems to me that “revolutions” are but hemorrhoids on the artery of history. Painful, itchy, unsavory but otherwise meaningless.


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