Re: Memetic levels

Bill Benzon (
Sat, 14 Jun 1997 10:25:23 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 14 Jun 1997 10:25:23 -0500
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Re: Memetic levels

Alex Brown says:
>The musical analogy discussed by Bill Benzon and Jon Cortmaior
>exemplifies the issue of what unit of analysis we should use to define
>what a meme is and how we can use it to investigate cultural production.
>As I understand it, in their posts they point to three levels of music
>which together form the domain 'music'. The first is the recognizable
>fragment which exists in different pieces of music: eg. the riff. The
>second is the whole song, tune or symphony which incorporates these and
>other 'fragments' (stylemes?) and the third level: the repertoire of all
>such songs, tunes or symphonies which incorporates all particular pieces
>of music. (There are, in fact intermediate levels which are stylistic
>groupings which have a semi-autonomous existance. In biological terms
>these would be 'populations' within a species).

Speaking of those intermediate levels, I think we have at least 4 levels.
For example, jazz as a body of music is certainly distinct from (Western)
classical as a body of music. But different jazz styles -- traditional,
swing, bop, etc. -- and different classical styles -- baroque, classical,
romantic, etc. -- surely have autonomous existence. Within both jazz and
classical major battles were conducted by the communities committed to one
or other of those styles. If one wants to think of music history in
evolutionary terms, then the movement from one of these styles to another,
and the interaction of these various styles, is the major phenomenon to be

Now, one thing that's interesting to me is the way that we can now think of
all of classical music (up through, say, the early 20th C.) as a body of
music and the same with jazz. But more than THINKING of it that way,
LISTENING to it and PERFORMING it as single bodies of music (& then you
have Wynton Marsalis who works in both jazz and classical). The people who
originally created and listened to the music couldn't and didn't regard it
in that way. They resisted change and refused to think of the new stuff as
music at all. And the people creating the new stuff thought of the old
stuff as empty pattern mongering. The difference between Jelly Roll Morton
and Count Basie was worth fighting about, on both sides. The same goes for
the difference between Beethoven and Handel.

If you really want to think about the "recursive" in Calvin's phrase about
the recursive bootstrapping of quality, think about how differences which
were worth fighting about in the past are almost of little or no
consequence now. Are the current Beethoven's and Charlie Parker's at all
interested in any of that music whose development stopped 30 (jazz) to 90
(classical) years ago?

It almost looks like yesterday's phenotypes have become mere memes in the
current musical evolutionary soup.

>for the creation of the single building. Where would we place the meme
>in this case? Is it the recognizable fragment, the individual whole form
>(song or building) or is it the whole repertoire of forms from which
>individual works are derived (by combination)? The same questions can,
>of course be asked of any other cultural domain.
And of course the distinct architectual styles which people fought over in
the past are now being treated as memes in post-modern whatever.

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA

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