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As we took apart the title of our course yesterday, examining what it means to call any activity a "practice," we noted that practices seem to move forward over time: that is, the community of people who engage in a practice change the way they do so. In practices tied to truths about the external world, these changes might originate in new discoveries about the world. A new discovery about human physiology is going to change how doctors practice medicine.

But in the arts, including literature, on both the creative and the critical side, more often changes seem to originate in new features of the environment in which the community carries out its practice. These new features may themselves be the result of new discoveries about the world, but it's the features themselves, the changing environment, rather than the truths that brought them into being, that drive change.

When we say that the arts, like the natural sciences and the practices that depend on them, "move forward," then, we don't mean (or at least shouldn't mean?) that they get closer to "the truth" about things. We mean (or ought to mean?) that they are now doing things in a way that accords with the new reality that surrounds us. In an almost literally Darwinian sense, they "evolve." (For Darwin, evolution didn't necessarily mean improvement, merely adaptation to the environment.)

On NPR's All Things Considered yesterday, Audie Cornish was interviewing composer Dan Deacon, who, as it happens, is also profiled in this article from today's New York Times.

Have a listen to the interview here, and pay particular attention to the last portion of it, which begins at about 5 minutes, 50 seconds in. What Deacon says below makes a lot more sense when you hear it in his own voice, and in the context of the whole conversation with Cornish, but I'm also reprinting it from the interview transcript for your convenience:

I feel like we live in an era where it's impossible to think of how 10 years from now, we'll still be calling electronic music, electronic music. Or maybe we still - I don't know, when we're constantly swimming in this sea of sounds, of sirens and cellphone beeps and prerecorded music outside gas stations, like it just permeates our system. There's always sound coming in, and nine times out of 10, it's synthetic.

And we live in this, like, weaving of music that we don't even realize. So, of course, our music is going to reflect that. And we're going to have more noise, and we're going to have more synthetic (makes noise) like sneaking into our sounds. And for most people, I think all these things are very subtle, but they still impact them. And they affect the way that they hear something. So we're just being conditioned to exist in this synthetic, chaotic-based environment, and I think our music is starting to really accurately reflect that.