What the law of diminishing diversity tells us
A quick scan of the online postings from classical music's cultural commentators proves the law of diminishing diversity. This law tells us that a commentator's commitment to true cultural diversity is inversely proportional to their social media presence. In this context cultural diversity does not mean the standard 'Mirga', 'Sheku', 'Brexit doom' and 'woman composer' box-ticking. It means reflecting the truly rich cultural diversity of art music at the expense of the holy grail of audience size.
The mechanism propelling the the law of diminishing diversity is easy to understand. Popularity in the form of readership numbers, audience size, site traffic and other social media metrics is now the end game for cultural commentators. So if a topic pulls eyeballs, you provide more of the same to generate more eyeballs, which results in cultural tunnel vision.
This dynamic of giving more of the same in the interests of audience size is multiplied many times by the algorithms which now control what we read online. Because the raison d'être of these ubiquitous algorithms is to give more of the same to hook a reader's attention, thereby generating more revenue for the data harvesters.
The social media mantra of 'more of the same' undermines the serendipity so vital to diverse experiences, as Jenny O'Dell explains in 'How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy' - "We still recognise that much of what gives one's life meaning stems from accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous encounters: the "off time" that a mechanistic view of experience seeks to eliminate". This eradication of serendipity means the internet's promised long tail has turned into a short click. Or in other words, if it ain't click bait, don't tweet it.
Lou Harrison is one of many composers marginalised by the law of diminishing diversity. He is almost entirely absent from the outpourings of the classical influencers, except for the occasional metric uplift from flaunting that click bate perennial 'gay'. Many composers from Wagner to Philip Glass have been influenced by Buddhism. But Lou Harrison is one of the few to set a Buddhist text. His epic choral work La Koro Sutro uses an Esperanto setting of the core Buddhist scripture, the Heart Sutra.
It is unfortunate that today any mention of a wisdom tradition, with the notable exception of Judaism, is seen as morally suspect. Because Buddhism, when taken as a philosophy rather than a religion, has much to teach us. Many Buddhist teachings provide a valuable bridge between contemporary science and everyday life, particularly the teachings of impermanence, non-locality, and emptiness. The late Victor Mansfield, who was a professor of physics and astronomy at Colgate University, explores these links in his essential book Tibetan Buddhism & Modern Physics.
To illustrate what can be learnt from these teachings, the following is my paraphrase of a section from Victor Mansfield's book. Music is simply a conceptual designation, a complex arrangement of dependency relations that completely lacks independent or inherent existence. It, like all objects and subjects in the universe, is empty of inherent existence, lacking any self-sufficient essence. It has no essential self-nature and so is continuously transforming, changing, and evolving as it interacts with its infinite web of defining relationships.
Which means music is not defined by the gender or ethnicity of its practitioners, by the acoustic characteristics of its performing space, or by geographic boundaries. Instead it is defined by the complex dependent relationships between these and many more overlapping phenomena. And when we try to enforce those artificial definitions, as happens in our social media culture, we extinguish the truly rich cultural diversity of art music. The Cretan lyra virtuoso, dear friend and exemplar of true diversity Kelly Thoma sums it up perfectly in this note for her first solo album Anamkhara:
'We all seek the same thing, it's just that each one of us gives it a different name. Music can unite our souls with unknown powers and transport us to unspeakable worlds. And when we return to the world of consciousness we can see love and beauty more clearly. This is the way I found in life to seek for what we all look for. And it seems that the number of souls which exist corresponds exactly to the number of different ways'.