Saturday, December 01, 2012

Sound of the Year: 2012 – PUSSY RIOT

On February 21, 2012, five modestly clad Russian women entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia.  And once inside they cast off their black outer wear to reveal brightly colored skirts and tights beneath. Then they pulled equally colorful homemade ski masks over their faces and stormed the front of the church whereby they launched into 'Mother of God, Drive Putin Out', a song that has also been called a 'punk prayer'.

The quartet, composed of several members of the arts activist collective, PUSSY RIOT, staged this bit of disruptive theater as a form of political protest. And in their punk prayer they loudly appealed to the Virgin Mary to chase the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, out of power, along with the oppressive patriarchal political system that they've said Putin represents.

That none of the performers actually played a musical instrument suggests that it was probably not the actual song itself that captured the world’s imagination, but rather how the Russian authorities reacted to this performance that rushed others to their support and pushed the band into the public eye.

First, when news of the group's arrest and a video of the performance was posted online, it created a divide between those who were morally offended by their actions and those who were outraged by their incarceration. While the former argued the the ‘girls’ perhaps needed a bit of manners knocked into them, the latter found inspiration in four strong freedom fighters whose swift silence by the Russian state made their situation a cause célèbre.

That the members of Pussy Riot also looked equal part Teletubby as they did Terrorist gave fashionistas as much a reason to talk about the women's creativity as their politics stirred journalists and Human Rights groups to action. Add to this milieu the ongoing social unrest in the Mideast framed as an ‘Arab Spring’, and the Occupy protests in America, and the members of Pussy Riot seemed to provide yet another potent and creative symbol of ongoing global change.

Which is why, if "We Are All Pussy Riot" as the band's slogan suggests, it's not because of any universal appeal attributable to their music. It's because they came onto the global scene like costumed superheroes and arrived into a world whose economies and power structures seem universally in need of severe disruption. Perfectly suited for the role, icons they became.

As a result, not since the Beatles has one band earned the interest of so many so quickly. And the last band to irritate a state to such a degree were the members of the The Plastic People of the Universe who in the seventies suffered arrests, convictions and even deportation at the hands of the communist Czechoslovakian government. But in a pre-Internet age, that band’s efforts was largely muted to the west by an insularizing Iron Curtain. –Even if inside the country these injustices would inspire Václav Havel and other Czech intellectuals to further resist and change the system.

Certainly, many artists work under despotic conditions, but unfortunately most lack the perfect combination of creative strategies, social networks and political motivations to achieve global recognition for themselves or their cause. Thus, they continue to struggle in near or complete anonymity.

What makes Pussy Riot different, on the other hand, is that whether through politics or poetics, the group seems to offer something that everyone can relate to on a personal level.

And that's why Pussy Riot inspires and fascinates; all of us can identify some aspect of their art or purpose to relate or react to, whether we admire their tactics as performers or debate their efficacy as change agents.

And that’s why Pussy Riot strikes some as the only band that matters today.

And that's why Pussy Riot, with their riotous, rebellious punk prayer, 'Mother of God, Drive Putin Out', is the 2012 Critical Noise Sound of the Year.

+ + +


The Critical Noise Sound of the Year goes to that sound source, event, entity, happening or concept which so effectively produces wide response and reaction, whether intentional or not, such that it stirs collective emotion, inspires discussion, incites action, or otherwise lends itself to cultural analysis and resonates across the globe.

Prior Sound of the Year winners include The Cry for Freedom (2011), The Vuvuzela (2010) and Auto-Tune (2009) 

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Branded @ Birth™

Regardless of one's cultural background, primary language or education, some people believe babies call their mother ‘MA’ (or some version thereof) not because they’re taught do so, but because they’re programmed to do so.

This theory stipulates that just as humans are born with certain physical body parts, we're also born with a bit of a pre-birth cognitive fodder called ‘Archetypes’.

In Jungian psychology an archetype is described as “a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.” (

There are many fascinating aspects about this, if it is true, not the least of which is the implication that we are all Branded @ Birth, and then start from the very beginning of our lives branding every single thing around us (as products of our reality, our culture, even our imagination).

If this is indeed the case, then archetypes presuppose culture and are neurobiological in origin. We might then say that archetypes exist within the black box of consciousness as pre-programmed urges to express certain behaviors. These primal urges first take form as intuitive actions that are then instagrammed as  symbols intended to represent the action or capture the meaning of these urges.  That is, rendering symbols is the manner by which one documents an impression, applies a cognitive filter to it, and then shares it with others.

If every urge represents a fundamental need or desire, then every symbol is essentially a command. And these commands once produced and distributed/transmitted/communicated –put into action as it were– exhibit memetic potential.

Perhaps this potential is even the result of archetypal recognition by those receiving the transmission. But the additional result of this eternal loop is a complicated matrix of understandings and conventions we call culture. And one might also say that the reverse engineering of all this resulting symbolic data is what we now call semiotics. This could all be academic, or it could be navel gazing, but I still find it all very fascinating to consider; the mind reels.

What is the zeitgeist anyway?

We might think of zeitgeist as a series of trends, but by my calculus it's semiotics in motion; an archetypal tsunami; symbolic data moving culture the same way a strong current moves a floating object. –But equally influenced by an undercurrent of ideas and prior actions that collectively effect the NOW as they move beneath the visible surface of society, and in this way capably move highly ingrained and even resistant convictions great distances over many years, even decades, centuries and millennia.

Of course, if we define archetypes simply as pre-birth patterning, then animals are also endowed with them, and we can suppose that any instinctual activity has at its source archetypal data. It may not be enough to ask if the dog's bark is worse than his bite, but also inquire what does either bark or bite mean?

In any event, the notion of archetype supposes we arrive into the world if with not a song, then with an elemental sound already formed in our heads (or the urge to produce a sound), and that is the sound of our mother’s name –at least the name by which we will call her. Again we are branded at birth, imprinted by a distinguishing mark that identifies us as no less than a product of our Mother.

By the way, some people also believe we do actually arrive into the world with a song in our heads. It's called 'The Ur-song' and you can hear what it sounds like by playing the following video (the melody here is played straight; it is also often heard with a swing):

Incidentally, because the vocalized ‘ma’ signification precedes graphic representation, I like to think of it less as an archetype than as an ‘Archetone’.

I also think it might be true that ‘ma’ doesn't bear any archetypal or pre-natal psychological origin, but that it ehibits universal usage simply because nursing mothers interpret ‘SMA’ –the sound of lips un-puckering from a kiss or breast– as an attempt to communicate. (And by extension, ‘DA’, the sound of one opening one’s mouth when one’s tongue has been stuck to the roof of it).

Once believing their baby has begun speaking, parents might then reward a child with further affection. And by this action they thereby reinforce a lip-smack as as an appropriate designation for a god like being by an utterly helpless moppet.

It’s not quite as romantic an etymology as being in possession of an ancient archetype, but who’s to say it’s wrong?

Whatever the mechanics, 'ma’ becomes a meme, and eventually ma becomes mama becomes mom becomes mother, and this is how mommy goes viral.

If you have any interest in memetics (the study of cultural transmission), one can’t help but ask if ‘Ma’ is the smallest unit of cultural transmission exhibited in early childhood development?

–Or is there something smaller than 'ma' to be found; something that lies between archetypal urge and symbolic utterance? I believe that there is, and that thing is the actual sound of the baby’s natural and not-quite-yet semantic cry.

Although, I’m not really sure that such a cry can't be designated as non memetic because I've heard one baby set off a dozen other babies, as if they were all part of a single coddled swarm.

The fact is, any human behavior can trigger an action which once repeated becomes a pattern, and then, at that point –at the point of Pattern Manifestation– it finally assumes the potential to be transmitted along a memetic distribution system.

Or rather, it exhibits the power to trigger replication from one host to another: you, me and mommy, too.

It’s as if the archetype once given voice as an archetone, the entire process resembles nothing so much as a musical Ouroboros –the mythical image of a serpent eating its own tale, and thus forming an eternal circle.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Pussy Riot and the Emerging Power of Women

Interestingly, Pussy Riot’s punk prayer continues to agitate and inspire. It also lends itself to the reflection and analysis of other cultures and societies well beyond the Russian Federation. That is, Pussy Riot is a lens with which we can use to examine any tier of any society. We can ask ourselves, where ever we live in the world: 'What does Pussy Riot say about Thailand?' or 'What does Pussy Riot say about America?, for instance. Which is why, when we do tilt that lens to the west, one can't help but notice that forty years after punk rock's inception:

• It’s 'girls' who demonstrate that the spirit of rock is not dead, though it may very well appear to be at times in places like London or New York, or anywhere, actually, where music is only made to be licensed for a commercial or otherwise lives to serve as a soundtrack for a a spin upon a treadmill or around a shopping mall.

•  It’s 'girls' who emerge as freedom fighters and who set the unequivocal standard for arts activism.

• And it’s 'girls', again, who managed to rattle the Kremlin; and it's 'girls' who now suffer harsh legal consequences while one can simultaneously imagine a billion men that simply prefer to watch the whole thing play out on their smartphones and digital tablets.

In other words, how or whether Pussy Riot's punk prayer changes anything in Russia is perhaps not even the correct question. For many people, the more relevant question is: 'How has Pussy Riot changed me?'

And also, Pussy Riot’s rail against patriarchy no doubt will survive as a sign of the times, and not just as a bit of music history but as a symbol of the emerging power of women in the 21st Century. For, indeed, women can be seen to be taking an increasing lead in ideas, inspiration, cultural advancement and political influence, and they are doing so all over the world, and at all levels of society.

Besides Pussy Riot, other notable examples of this shift can be exemplified by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!; Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton; Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani educational activist, who survived an attempt on her life by the Taliban; Italian particle physicist, Fabiola Gianotti, who is said to lead the largest scientific experiment in the world at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland; and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia who is oft quoted for telling a group of Harvard students, "If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."

Certainly, the women of Pussy Riot have also made a similar achievement in the area of Arts Activism and Culture.

But maybe you think Pussy Riot’s punk prayer is just Riot grrrl styled punk rock or maybe you think it sounds like Beastie Boy styled rap; or maybe you think that it’s not music at all – just a bunch of yelling and angry noise. It all depends on where you stand aesthetically and philosophically. But while it might sound like the sound of something dying to you, it's also the sound of something being born; and that something is the future itself.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Extra Musical Expression

Medieval Musicians
If we accept the notion that a melodic hook or motif and musical meme are synonymous with one another, we must also accept that a meme is not simply a unit of cultural transmission, as Richard Dawkins initially posited when he coined the word, but the smallest possible unit of cultural transmission, as others have since suggested. And once we do this we will also realize, like physicists parsing the atom, that still smaller units of symbolic data play upon the ear drum with each resonant beat or note.


Certainly, both musicians and audiences know that a successful musical performance requires more than simply the dry execution of composed notes from a page or memory. That whether one puts it in these terms or not, it also requires the deliberate production of interstitial noise by the performer, not to mention other substrates of sonic data, which we might call Nuance or Quantum Audio, and whose production allows for a more efficient transmission of a given meme.

For instance, the play of bow placement relative to an instrument's bridge; the weight and pressure employed by the performer's arm on the bow; and add to this, a  sufficient use of rosin, and  all these variables and more can be used by a violinist to shape the ratio of generally noisy artifacts caused by the friction of the bow upon the string, and the tone produced by the vibrating string itself.

Similarly, singers and those who play brass, reed and woodwinds can also shape tone simply by changing the balance of air to pitched sound.

In either case, while the meme is capably notated, the scale of these synchronous and sometimes very nearly transparent expressions often inhibits our notation of them. This may not be true for all forms of notation, but it is generally true for traditional scoring, which despite the capacity to indicate general dynamics, is primarily a shorthand for transcribing pitches than it is a system for communicating extra musical expression, –not to mention non musical collateral.

Nor does a term such as nuance, which implies a set of actions singularly controlled by the performer, capture every facet within the 'performance framework' that might serve to fulfill and satisfy listener expectation. Architecture, for instance, is generally beyond a performer's control, but no doubt the resulting acoustics of a given environment contribute to the perception and reception of a work.


Take for example, the liturgical chant. Based on prior experience of liturgical chants, any subsequent liturgical chant requires delivery within a cavernous space, if one's intention is to deliver an equivalent experience as that provided by the genre in question. Otherwise such a work may fail or fall short as a carrier of the intended set of symbolic data.

It is certainly possible to make a recording sans extra musical sound, interstitial noise and sub memetic data. And in fact, this actually appears to be the prevalent trend. Indeed, noiseless recording has long been and continues to be a measure of perfection for many musicians, engineers and audio enthusiasts. And presumably, there will always be those who believe the very definition of a recording suggests any captured material should serve as the optimal document of a given work. Further, the concept of 'optimal' will suggest a precise performance (whether man made or machine modified) that features purity of tone, accuracy of pitch, consistent timing and intelligible signification.

And yet, no doubt, it is also just the opposite of all those things, employed with great artistry and captured on the recording medium by a discerning engineer, that makes the transmission of music more than just the sum of its notes, but an expression of the soul.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A Sign of the Times: The Semantic Terrorist

Naturally, one can't help but make comparisons with controversial performers. Neither Madonna nor Sinead O'Connor, for instance, are strangers to provocation. However, they were already global superstars when their offending actions threatened to derail their careers.  In contrast, Pussy Riot's illegal in-church protest was actually the thing that transformed this theretofore little known arts collective into a worldwide punk rock phenomenon.

Similarly, the Sex Pistols railed against 'the Queen and her fascist regime,' as well as their record label, EMI, but the motivation behind those efforts is debatable given the band’s parallel efforts to sell records and gain celebrity.

Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and many others, too, pen songs of protest, but like the Sex Pistols, their tunes are as much sentiments of social consciousness as they are product.

Interestingly, it may also be that not since Kabuki styled, fire breathing, glam band Kiss launched their act in the mid seventies, that any single rock group has achieved such wide interest largely based on signification codes, i.e. Pussy Riot's 'look' is as much vehicle for  their ideas as the lyric to their punk prayer. As a result, the band's semiotic strategy actually makes the music irrelevant to one's appreciation of the group. As it should be: for commercial groups all activities are meant to create a funnel towards product; but in the case of Pussy Riot, the music is a  conduit for regime change.

In this regard, the women of Pussy Riot appear to be first to concept with a new breed of 21st Century performer and change agent: The Semantic Terrorist; that is, an agitprop art bomber with the marketing acumen of a brand strategist but who doesn't give a sh*t about selling you anything.  

Indeed, it's likely that we'll see and hear from other Semantic Terrorists as others rise and join in the chorus of the Great Connected Global Disruption that defines our era.

But what exactly do we find so captivating about the Semantic Terrorist?

In a world where advertisers are increasingly replacing record labels as ministers of culture; when economies are crumbling under the weight of outdated precepts; when politicians think it more expedient to silence the voices of the weak, and protect the interests of the powerful;  the women of Pussy Riot serve to remind us that free of corporate sponsorship, blind nationalism or overfatigued groupthink, a dissident artist can get on with the business of attempting to topple a government, jail time and trendy miniskirts, not withstanding.

In a way, it's absolutely refreshing.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

What Machines Teach Us About Music

Photo Credit: R.Bart
Fundamentally, all musical instruments are machines, whether they are composed of nineteenth century spruce, horsehair and animal gut, or plastic parts and circuit boards.

The piano is an early computer with a digital keyboard interface. The violinist is a cyborg wielding a controller in one hand and symbiotic touch screen in the other. Both devices are designed to translate a series of logical operations into sound, stir the senses and move the soul.

So, from the very beginning we can observe that machines have been integral to man’s relationship with music. And yet, while musical instruments have long been used as tools of mimicry as much as melody, some along the way have considered the collective sonic palette of even the symphony orchestra to be inadequate.

In fact, in 1913, Italian Futurist and Noise visionary, Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) laments he is weary of ‘Eroica’, and traditional instrumentation and tonality in all its varieties. Much more, he realizes, is he excited by the sounds generated by the burgeoning Industrial Age, and where others only hear noise, he hears sonic opportunities.

Indeed, he believes “that by selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure.” And to this end, Russolo dreamed up a new music paradigm he calls ‘The Art of Noises’.


It took the introduction of the Tape Recorder over a quarter of a century later before his vision will reach its full fruition. But once it does, and though it becomes very popular, his philosophy does not so much serve to eradicate traditional musical practices, as much as it does to refresh them with what many young people agree is a new improved modern flavor. Much later, with the introduction of the synthesizer, the sampler and eventually the personal computer, the deft manipulation of subjugated noise and sublime patterning reaches its apex of global popular appeal in the form of hiphop.

However, if we return to the very first 1948 radio broadcast of a ‘concert of noises’, produced by Pierre Schaeffer for Radiodiffusion Française, we can hear that it includes an ensemble of locomotives, which by even Russolo’s time was already as old a sound as that of the modern symphony orchestra. To the contemporary ear this recording resembles a film score sans moving image. The common perception is that this is all the work of its human designer, but I rather like to think it is a duet, between one machine and another, the recording device and the railroad. And spliced between the two, as it happens, is the seminal sound of all things to come.

Today, recording technology functions in at least three capacities: 1) As a sound source, 2) As an efficient production tool, and 3) As a teaching aid. But not withstanding its profound influence in our studios and on our stages, I wonder if there have been any other machines, apart from electronic versions of traditional instruments, which have been as influential on the compositional process as either the railroad or telegraphy.

Both rattled to life well before Russolo published his Art of Noises, and each produced such a potent rhythm that the two together might very well have given birth to modernism in music. What would rock’n’ roll be without the rail? Calypso with out the empty steel oil drum? Or media minimalism without Morse Code?

It may sound odd to say so, but if we are to speak of famous composers, then the locomotive and its inventors, and Samuel F. B. Morse are as important as both Beethoven and the blues.


As it happens, I’m reminded of this possibility on a daily basis, during my own commute upon New York City’s subway. This circumstance affords me much opportunity to imagine my own musical constructions over a consistent rhythm. And I do this so often that I now think of the thing that I am riding on as not so much a method of vehicular transport as a metronome on a grand scale that keeps time even as it moves through space.

If this methodology sounds curious to the non-musician, what I’m doing is not so different as when a DJ builds a musical experience atop a loop. In other words, we are both using a beat making machine as a compositional tool.

This begs the question: Is music merely organized sound as the composer, Edgard Varèse, has described it? Or is music only that which is qualitatively emotional, as technologist and concert pianist Manfred Clynes posits?


Notwithstanding the human construct that birds sing rather than speak, and if we accept that music is peculiar to humanity, then Varèse’s definition is too broad, for it permits the inclusion of natural phenomena, which might be perceived as organized in the ear of the beholder.

Conversely, if we accept the notion that organized sound must be qualitatively emotional to qualify as music, then Clynes’ definition is too limiting, because it not only denies us the use of an otherwise emotionally neutral railroad, put potentially dismisses the possibility of any Machine Signification in Music.

But no doubt an interesting thing happens once we begin to contextualize the sound of a train as a musical sound source, and that is that despite its neutral position, this sound (and any sound) appears to fit into an organization, and then also, begins to resonate with meaning, that is, depending on the context, the ghost in the machine, if there is one, literally seems to speak to us. It is a cognitive phenomenon which takes place not so much because a composer intends it, but because we the listener project meaning when we (automatically) frame sound with prior experience.

In other words, it’s all noise until you decide otherwise. Indeed, even Top Ten Radio is noise until you actually hear a song you like.

Marshall McLuhan famously said (among other things), "Art is anything you can get away with." But to answer the question, ‘What is Music?’ we might first look to what machines have taught us about music. And the answer to that question is that all sound is born of noise until the moment that we frame it as a tool for (or source of) communication. And only then is it transformed into art.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Machines, Music and Meaning

Machines, Music and Meaning:
From orchestral cannonfire to the Countdown clock

[First published by SEMIONAUT†, March 13, 2012.]
From rail rhythms in rock, to drill bits in glitch hop and dub step, the use of machines to make music is not a new idea, although their influence may not always be apparent to our ears. 

In one very clear link, music refers to the sound-making device itself, as when Tchaikovsky employed cannon fire in his 1812 Overture. Certainly, cannon fire can be said to be dramatic, and because of its powerful effect, it signifies a warning to potential invaders, as much as it should also produce feelings of patriotism in a loyal nationalist, as was the composer’s intent.

Tchaikovsky also chose to use an actual cannon for the sound of the cannon’s roar, rather than engage traditional instruments to mimic explosive blasts. That is to say, as with words or images, sometimes the power of abstracted sounds lies with their direct or common associations. Likewise, sometimes a sign only points in one direction. However, also like language and imagery, and depending on context, abstracted sounds lend themselves to a variety of uses, which resonate well beyond literal interpretation.

For instance, the clock at your bedside simply indicates the time of day. But when embedded within the score for a game show, such as Jeopardy or Countdown, we do not so much as note the time as we become aware of its passage, and all that such passage implies. We may thus find ourselves empathizing with an indecisive contestant when a looming deadline must be beat. In the case of Countdown, if we remove the clock from the main theme, all we have is an exciting musical prelude, but otherwise lacking any real sense of urgency.

For another example, trains have long had an influence on modern music, either as a literal effect, or as a source for a powerful rhythm. However, in ‘This City Never Sleeps’, the band The Eurythmics employ the sound of London’s underground towards another interesting result. For whether we notice it or not, the lack of crowd murmur within the sound sample imparts upon us a feeling of loneliness. So that no matter where or when we listen to this song we are transported to a particularly empty place in both our hearts and the middle of the night.

In the same way, consider the Cha-Ching opening of a cash register in Pink Floyd's ‘Money’. The register alone might set the physical scene of a shop, but it’s the incessant looping of the sound that produces a feeling of obsession, and thus, before a single word is uttered or sung, the music is instantly framed as a missive on consumerism or greed.

Even if we dismiss mechanical rhythms as primary influencers, industrial products have been responsible for not simply contributing novel sounds to music, but for seeding several modern genres. One needn’t even point to electronically powered music for an obvious example. What would calypso be, for instance, but for the empty steel oil drum?

Generally speaking, the use of machines in music have historically suggested that we are collectively more modern than we were yesterday. But since mankind’s most recent mechanical fascination is with an otherwise silent device –the computer – one wonders what impact it will have on music of the 21st Century? Will silence become the new indicator of modernism? Or will this silence force us to reconsider our own biological rhythms and usher in a new bio-musical age? Or will the computer’s easy capacity for copying and combining thrust us towards an ever increasingly paste modern future?

Of course, any answer would only be guesswork, but we can be certain that otherwise reticent machines will continue to find new ways to speak to their human designers through the language music.

+ + +

Semionaut is an online magazine & knowledge resource offering insight into culture, media, creative industries, and brand strategy. Its publishers, editors, and contributors are professionally involved in the application of semiotic and cultural analysis to brand communication and design issues.

A Rube Goldberg Machine of Vast Scale

Is it just me or has any one else noticed that we seem to have rather oddly arrived at moment in our information dense and digitally democratic western culture that we are collectively more interested in decoding our selves than coding ourselves, than we ever have been. Does this sort of thing happen with ever major change in information distribution channels?

Either way, we see how some things which are designed may not be received as their designer/s intended. Some things are simply created for the pleasure of the designer, or for the amusement of audiences. And some things which are not designed appear as though they are. And you and I looking at the same thing might not see the same thing at all, or agree to its meaning, even if we did.


Cultural movements throughout history, and all the way up to the 20th Century, were usually driven by artists and their patrons. But we now live in the age of the mash up, and this form of expression is a curatorial art form. Nobody really wants to be an artist anymore; more often than not, most people are finding great satisfaction mining, deconstructing and re-contextualizing prior art into comparative expressions. One might argue that this is the basis of all genre, but convention has never before been mistaken with wholesale sampling on such a wide scale.

This begs another question: Can natural objects formed by purely physical processes of natural phenomena ever be considered art? It's easy to think so when we use an Amethyst Geode for a centerpiece. But I think 'Art' is a human construct, and therefore such things as rocks and natural tree formations are not in an of themselves art, until they are framed as such.

That is, natural objects only become art once we frame them within a construct. So, the tree which no one hears when it falls in the forest is neither heard nor is it art, but its recorded sound is, and certainly, if we take that tree and preserve it in a specific identifiable space, as we might do in designing a landscape, it is.


I also sometimes think of ART as that which is created for the pleasure of the designer, and which by happenstance may win a larger audience. And I sometimes think of ENTERTAINMENT as that which is created for the pleasure of an audience, and which by happenstance might eventually inure pride from its creator.

So, some observe the world, for instance, and see intentional design; others observe and see it as the product of random choices. But whether we are living on a planet with purpose or a Rube Goldberg machine of vast scale, 'the world' and the objects in it convey only that meaning which is read into it, and that which is read into is always the result of a common cultural agreement, whether by pilgrims or physicists, each party agreeing to a different set of commonly accepted conventions.

Which is to say, the mind attempts to make sense out of things, even when there is no connection. And it is this capacity that insures when no connection exists, we will always make one.

And since their are billions of us, each with his or her own opinion, a variety of meanings will necessarily overlap, and the parties to those meanings will occasionally rise to conflict in order to defend an idea or an ideal.

This might create a bitter divide between Evolutionists and Evangelicals, but as it happens, it also makes for inspired Art.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Thing Plus Time and Voilà!

Maya Funerary Urn
I'm by turns amused and but also intrigued how an abandoned doll or some utilitarian thing, even a broken fragment of clay, pulled from millenniums old mud is hailed hundreds or thousands of years later as an object of art. Because, it seems to me, by this measure, the answer to the age old question 'What is Art' is pretty simple:

Art = Thing + Time

Notwithstanding a previously mentioned idea on this site that music be defined as an applied theory of patterning (Beauty, Chaos, Design and Musicology), we might equally suggest that Art, in general, presents a relationship between a Construction and a Construct.

So, equally:

Art = Construction + Construct

Construction might be anything, whether man made or not. Whereas Construct indicates the framing device, which may be a literal frame, a proscenium arch or gallery space; or Construct may indicate a conceptual framework, such as an idea, or time. Indeed, in the case of artifacts recovered as a result of archaeological exploration, and which find themselves eventually sitting on a mantle in a museum, we might equally state:

• Art = Object + Frame

• Art =  Idea + Organization

Obviously, if our intent is to communicate a specific message with the expectation or reciprocal understanding, then creator and congregation, designer and devotee, musician and season ticket holders, –then all parties to the signification must share fluency in the same code.

That this doesn't happen all the time, and that some find enjoyment in things they don't understand, doesn't negate this premise. There is great enjoyment to be had, for instance, in the attempt to understand. What is and isn't jazz, for instance, is an argument that not even the musicians who play the music can seem to agree on. Not to mention that most people can be observed to watch a musical performance, but much fewer actually listen, and even less understand. And yet, (hopefully) all return home suitably entertained or enlightened.

So, it's not so much that we enjoy an evening spent in an ignorant disposition, but that we enjoy the cognitive activity of decoding art, assuming that at the same time we are possessed of this experience, the designer or a curator also provides us with the equivalent of a Rosetta Stone by which we might arrive at some understanding of the artist's intent.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Listening to Be Bop: Staring at an Eclipse of the Sun

Photo Credit Luc Viatour
In the same way the performance of a score is different from an improvisation, I like to consider books, scripts and prepared presentations designed, but conversation as impromptu speech and therefore an unadorned chassis of thought, –engine, transmission and framework inclusive.

That's why we might take offense if someone stops us mid sentence to correct our use of a certain word, and we in turn them accuse them of being pedantic. Because perhaps the graver error is not the so-called mistake, but that the listener has given themselves away as being tone deaf to nuance.

Yes, a shared agreement on the meanings of certain words might make a given case better, but perfect usage, syntax or pronunciation does not always produce the most efficient means of conveying an idea or delivering a message. Sometimes the most engaging delivery requires one to take artistic liberties, to stretch the boundaries of language to its breaking point; but in order for such transmissions to be successful, we require an audience that can decipher new codes as they are being invented, that will forgive us errors in flow, and that might even find beauty in the way that we stumble.

Otherwise, what use poetry?


We are human, after all, and as such we frequently 'color' our codes with nuance or variation, or we deviate altogether, and beg our listeners to follow us down some slippery linguistic slope, and hopefully the challenge is worth it. Indeed, we often employ nuance and other such tactics to embed meaning into an otherwise incomplete statement. That is, we force micro expressions, not to mention body language, to do the heavy lifting when words fail us.

And indeed, a smile is very different from a smile and a wink. A wink can change everything. A wink can transform whatever has been said into it's complete opposite. Similarly, there are winks in music, too, if you can hear them. Although, sometimes you need to watch the performer to catch them as they sail by the senses into the last passing moment.

Not to mention that you can't convey emotion in music if you stay perfectly in tune. You can, however, express the absence of emotion, which often seems an art unto itself in modern music.


Misunderstandings, however, are not always the fault of the listener; and in fact, any communicator must take responsibility for being understood, the same way a soldier has to take responsibility for discharging friendly fire. 'I didn't mean to do it' or 'I didn't mean to say that' or 'You don't understand me' can be seen as attempts to discharge blame for one's own actions on audience members. But the musician who strives for a blue note and doesn't quite bend far enough has only his or herself to blame, if later someone else interprets the action as an error or high brow attempt at chromaticism.

"Do you get the gist of what I'm saying/ playing?" We might ask when we realize that although our brains are on fire, ignited by the passion or inspiration of the moment, we've been talking too fast for our mouths to actually articulate properly.

That said, it may be that a performer plays perfectly (if we can ever use that phrase for art), but audiences perceive the result as noise. The interpolating harmonies of some Asiatic musics often strike western listeners as out of tune. So, it bears pointing out that the perceived organization of any given data set is not only or always the intention of a given organizer. Which is to say sometimes I look at something and you look at something and we see different things. Happens all the time. That's why even eyewitness accounts have to be corroborated by evidence.

Not to mention that sometimes a data set –what is observed– is often subject to an overlay of meaning by the observer, an overlay that may or may not be the intention of the designer, especially if the circumstances by which the data set arrives upon our senses are random in origin.


'What does it mean?' You may ask listening to either Stravinsky or Bebop.
'What does it mean?' You may ask staring at Jackson Pollack painting.
'What does it mean?' You may ask staring at the Grand Canyon, or an eclipse of the sun.

Whatever it is, it may mean something or nothing at all. But if it has any meaning at all, such meaning is either communicated by the creator, or projected by the congregation or consumer.

Likewise, it may mean one thing for the culture and another for the commuter; one thing for the civilization and another for the one who unearths it.

For instance, is that a Barbie Doll the little girl holds in her hands? Or a fertility goddess? I'm presently inclined to think that as the centuries advance, the phrase 'Barbie Doll' will become synonymous with fertility goddess.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Beauty, Chaos, Design and Musicology

 Lorenz attractor by Wikimol
From time to time I find myself returning to the same question: 'What is music?'

I keep returning to it because I remain fascinated how this one simple question begets so many different answers, and how each is supported by valid evidence and argument.

So, I'm increasingly inclined to think that the only way to define music in a way that includes all prospective definitions is to describe it as an applied theory of patterning, and one which is not even limited to sound, for as it happens, so is everything else, too! –Even in regards to those things and processes where patterns appear non-existent.


The results of improvisation, for instance, whether speaking of music or ideas, can sometimes feel random, even for the performers or actors themselves, who if they are fluent instrumentalists (or inspired thinkers), are attempting to follow a line of thought to its logical conclusion. And because they are feeling and not thinking, if we may draw such a distinction, they are not necessarily or always making purposeful decisions.

Can we say Improvisation is designed? I'm only certain that, again, we will produce a variety of answers regarding this question.

Design, in contrast to Art, suggests the necessity of specialized thinking by groups of specialists. It therefore requires Purpose, if we expect a group of people to work together as a team. A band of musicians playing improvised material is a team working in concert, but what is the Purpose? However welcome entertainment without necessity or utility, does the act of these creative works constitute Purpose?

At the same time, although the choices a given performer makes might seem random (to either the listener or the performer), the results are always based on an algorithm we call Theory (albeit, different musics, different theories).

And any theory however wide is also limited by its hypotheses, which we may think of in terms of music as an array of conventional choices. For instance, when a musician chooses a note, he or she doesn't conjure random frequencies from thin air. They limit themselves to a few specific and commonly accepted frequencies. At least in this respect, I think, we could argue that Improvisation is the product of Design.


We can also draw another parallel to speech, whereby we make all sorts of spontaneous utterances when we engage in conversation. The results are never random gibberish, and they often serve a function, but neither are they Designed. You say one thing, and I reply with something not just intelligible, but connected. I don't return with ixpit kadunga rius pox fo loka, unless A) I speak another code/ language/ theory; B) I'm mentally challenged; C) Alternately, I might possess an enhanced set of cognitive abilities; D) I'm attempting to position myself as an Absurdist, and therefore being intentionally discordant, which given some circumstances, it might serve to produce a mutually agreeable, entertaining or even (in the case of some Zen koans) enlightening experience.

But much better if we are both fluent in a given language (the same language), and we agree on the same meanings for words (or tones or signs) that belong to our respective 'corpus', and further, that we employ this corpus according to mutually acceptable grammatical rules, and otherwise trade in a culturally accepted set of linguistic and codes or definitions. Then we remain intelligible, and our conversation, however it meanders, never disintegrates but for lack of interest, and otherwise remains capable of conveying whatever we desire to share with one another.

That's the way it is with Bach; that's the way it is with Ballet; that's the way it is with Burmese; that's the way it is with Boogie woogie.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Deconstructing Tone

Credit: Omegatron
Did you ever wonder how much music does a recorded musician have to play before a member of the listening audience can identify not just the specific work but also, who is playing it?

I think the correct answer is not a byte, but a myte’s worth.

In my custom corpus, a myte represents the smallest musical unit capable of triggering a cognitive response.

By this measure, a myte is smaller than a meme, which is defined as a small but nevertheless complete unit of transferable cultural information. A myte, on the other hand, need carry only enough data to provoke a response.


If Memes and Motives are Molecular; then Pitch is Atomic and the Myte a nano sized Sub Atomic audio particle.

Likewise, when we are impressed with a musical work, we speak of its compositional elements; and when we are impressed with a musician we are generally commenting on their style (how they play). But I think when we are impressed with a musician's TONE, what we are saying is they are deft manipulators of the myte.

That is, mytes represent the individual component elements that together form a matrix of expression that result in Nuance.

For instance, if one is a turn of the century rock fan of a certain age, one only need hear one (resonant) note from U2's The Edge to identify his playing, and a listener is able to do so not by recognizing what The Edge is playing (and therefore guess The Edge must be playing it), but rather by way of the sonic artifacts –intentional and unintentional– that are as much a part of The Edge's tone as the music itself (And this would be true for any musician).


One might also consider the ratio of air to pitch in the production a horn player's tone; of bow and rosin friction to vibrating string, sounding a bit like chronic vocal fry, in the production of a string player's tone; of breath to voice for a vocalist or flautist. We, the listener, focus almost exclusively on pitch content; we might even comment on the purity of tone as we allow ourselves to be dazzled by a performance; but in reality great tone, unless it is artificial, is never pure. And that's what draws us in; the humanity by which the machine appears to sing.

In fact it is as much the individual character by which a performer shapes pitch as it is the noise and nuance coloring said pitch (by a sublime measure) that we identify a given performer. We can say they are excellent technicians not simply because they control pitch and rhythm, but because of their the capacity to make calculated deviations and control noise, using it to color expression. And it may be this deftly wielded noise that more than anything else that brands the band, so to speak.

Broadly speaking we can examine the production of tone on a macro and micro level. At the macro level, tone is the inherent sound produced by a given instrument. On a micro level, musicians shape that tone with their fingers. The result is timbre shaped by nuance, which we call a musician's sound.
Within the context of Quantum Audio analysis we might further define Tone as not quite molecular but ‘rather sub memetic’.  The reason for this is that Tone exists over time; and using our myte analogy, can be said to be made up of a matrix of mytes. And as it happens, once we identify the elements of this organization, we can produce an algorithm and replicate it with simulation software (or if we are exceptionally talented, our own hands and cognitive powers as they lend themselves to musical performance).

This is certainly the premise by which cover bands ply their trade (albeit intuitively); it never sounds exactly like the real thing, but sometimes good enough is often good enough.


The identification of mytes and the algorithm by which they operate is also the premise by which manufacturers of simulation software produce devices by which we can dial in an entire era, and therefore evoke collective memories from a designated demographic. No doubt, this is obviously a useful tool in creating a brand asset or scoring period pieces, not to mention commonplace today.

And so, I think there can also be no doubt that even the merest sliver of a song can capably evoke an emotional response, and that the identification of the sonic gestures responsible for this cognitive phenomena are sub melodic and devoid of rhythm patterning, in other words 'incomplete' expressions.

We might similarly ask how much information can be conveyed and decoded from within a single phoneme? For no doubt, nomenclature experts having their own understanding of the power of incomplete expressions sound, ply their trade by stitching phonemes together into new, but nevertheless highly suggestive words for their clients.


But whether musical or linguistic in nature, assuming there is a cognitive difference in the two approaches (I'm not sure, either way), I do think such expressions require a different method by which to explain their utility as elements in aural message delivery systems and sonic branding than can be currently achieved by either the macro analysis of traditional music theory or music memetics.

And until that time, we can still take pleasure in knowing that they absolutely do exist, just as sure as we can know when the punch has been spiked with Lysergic acid diethylamide. That is, we know because these sub musical particles (and often non musical particles) act upon the senses like a hallucinogen, not because they are chemical in nature –they are not– but because of their ability to serve as very real psychoactive triggers upon the consciousness and conduits to virtual worlds and experiences.

It stands to reason then that apart from melody and rhythm, there is something else inside the music that makes any assembly of sound expressive. Some call it nuance and others call it noise, but if that's the case, that what we collectively call noise can be identified as essential elements in the production of expression, then clearly it is something akin to what I like to call critical noise.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Deconstructing Nuance

Isn't it amazing how some radio listeners who can identify a song from a tiny clip of sound.I certainly think so, especially if a person can do so with less than a second of sonic information. I think this phenomenon speaks to powerful capacity for even a small musical bytes of sound to evoke memory, not to mention a profound emotional response. And my fascination only deepens in those cases when I realize that I don't know the song at all, have no history with it.

It must be that however short and unique a given clip is, it nevertheless stimulates the ear according to a prior, similarly framed aural experience so that an equivalent response is thereby triggered. And if that's what indeed happens, then this tiny matrix of sonic data hits our brain like a zip file, immediately opens its contents and we respond to that data almost the instant we hear it.

In other words, very small packages can produce very, very big feelings.

As it happens, I think there's a lot to learn from this phenomenon, especially if one is in the business of music or sound design, or otherwise involved in the craft of creating sound for commercial application.

So, the question I want to know the answer for is not how long a clip has to be in order for someone to recall the title of a familiar work, but how small can an unfamiliar sample of sound be edited, and still produce an emotive response?

In other words:

How much information can be conveyed and decoded from within a fraction of a single edit, sample or beat?

Certainly, we can convey a mood and much more with even a single beat. Sample enthusiasts do this all the time, lifting a kick or snare, say, and dropping it into one's mix, with the result often being a sort of verbal shorthand for a specific era. Gated snare drums, for instance, recall the eighties, and by extension, a general feeling of the entire decade. Whether or not it’s fair or honest to reduce a decade to a single feeling or vibe is yet another question, but this is often what happens in the production of any period reconstruction for theater, film or video.

Feelings of nostalgia and evocation of mood aside, no doubt a single sonic event can transmit a complete message, so long as there is general consensual agreement that certain sounds, combinations of sounds, or treatments of sounds signify extra musical meaning (which is what I mean by 'message'). It may be that such terse transmissions do work upon us because what ever is there, however obscure, provides just enough aural evidence that a listener receiving this incomplete communication can reasonably assume to fill in what is missing, like reading words without vowels, or when someone cuts us off before we've finished speaking because they already understand the point.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lollipop, Lollipop: The Primacy of Patterning

Photo Credit: Henrique Matos
Art, especially modern art, often relies on the relativistic notion that anything organized suggests meaning. We don't usually enjoy something because it lacks meaning. In those instances, when a communication is illegible or impenetrable, we are simply left confused, or it makes no impression on us at all, as when we hear two people speaking a language we don't understand. Although, true, we might find ourselves enjoying the ambiance provided by a foreign lilt, as happens when we are on vacation. But more generally we enjoy a thing or a statement because it conveys information to us, which we are able to decipher. Or in the case of pure abstractions, because we think it means something, if only because that meaning is the result of our own projections upon the thing in question.

Indeed, was there ever an object that man did not endow with meaning?


Of course, music is a prime example of this. How can any combination of non verbal pitched soundings come to mean anything? The moon doesn't care if you play a seventh chord. And yet, music does contain and is capable of conveying meaning to us; meaning, mood and message. Even minute passages of music can capably frame or change the context of a given reality, by triggering emotion, recalling or embedding within memory, all by shading or shaping our perception with timed bursts of varying frequencies. This is a fact that never ceases to amaze me.

This is immediately evidenced in film scores, whereby a given cue might lead the viewer to a different understanding of a scene than one might otherwise have had without the cue. Likewise, walking down the street with headphones on and playlist engaged, you are effectively scoring your world. And it is the easiest way I know of to turn a gray dismal day into pure musical theater.

Simply define any two random dots or concepts in space, and the brain will create a bridge between them. Thus, everything is networked, not via intention (though sometimes so) but as a result of our perception of ideas and things. Every time we take in a new view, our eyes our constantly trying to make sense of what we're seeing, and our ears are no different in regards to the constantly changing acoustic ecology.

Without a doubt, what we hear can shape,modify or otherwise color what we see.


It happens the other way around too, and to such an extent, that I'm not even sure anymore that we can think of music as purely an aural experience.

Because, actually, everything we sense, whether through our eyes, ears, skin, nose, tongue or that which we call intuition, presents us with a collective (multidimensional) melody as long as we can link one concept to other, which we can not possibly avoid doing once we become aware of their existence within a single perceived set:

Elephant, car, bushman, bauxite, chica, flower, kijiti, pop.

Did you hear that? Maybe not but there's a good chance you gathered this sequence of randomly chosen concepts into a single set and began to attempt to make some correlative assumptions. Something about a bushman taking a car to see an elephant, perhaps, or something like that. Or maybe you didn't hear it so much as felt it, as certainly as percussionists feel lollipop triplets: 'lollipop, lollipop, lollipop' = '1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3').

It seems that everything whether it makes a sound or not, once it arrives into the brain can serve to ignite a musical experience. A comet slamming into the earth for instance, silent as it sails through space until the moment it slams into the Gulf of Mexico. Now, that's a gong on a cosmic order.


So if everything we can conjure can be defined as music, it's only because everything that arrives upon our senses is subject to immediate real time organization relative to a personal knowledge base, and thereby perceived as containing or contained by patterning.

Whether that patterning is divine in origin or not I'll leave to others to imagine and answer.

Either way, the result is we can hear, feel, and see, and taste, and smell music everywhere, because patterns are everywhere, and as such, they form a multi sensory matrix that appeals to all our receptors. Music pushes all our buttons, so to speak. –And also, because as we've demonstrated, even when no patterns exist, or are intentional, and whether or not there is evidence of maker, the mind nevertheless creates bridges, and thus produces a pattern, and then searches for meaning, until one is satisfactorily found. So there's no getting away with saying a work of art doesn't meaning anything; because if the artist doesn't invest meaning into his or or her work, the audience certainly will.

This circumstance may or may not yield answers to our deepest questions about the nature of our existence, but it does shed light on the nature of man's relationship to Art.

From chaos, beauty: not because it is inherently so, but because by connecting the dots and identifying a constellation therein, we make it so.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Systems and Music

Photo Credit: Frank Mikley
While browsing Quora, I stumbled on and became intrigued by the following query:

"What are some systems we live with today that were designed for a world of the past?"

For me, fascinated by schema and inspired by the idea that ancient patterns influence modern lives, well of course my mind set off in a million different directions. And if you're anything like me, you've created a long list of possibilities before you stop and ask yourself, "Wait, what's a system, anyway?"

Explanations abound, and Wikipedia, of course, offers a reasonable answer, which you can read for yourself by clicking this link: SYSTEM.

But in fact different professionals relate to the word 'system' in highly individual ways. Nevertheless, I think we can distill a variety of perspectives into the following clunky definition.

A system is an interdependent group of things, rules or concepts, which taken as a set, form a pattern, a single organization or a unified interconnecting network.

This already unwieldy definition only increases in complexity when we realize that sometimes the tools we use in the implementation of systems are systems or the products of themselves. Indeed, systems are often nested one within another, as a cell to a body, or an ocean on a planet. Likewise, a particular procedure using certain equipment might itself be considered an equipment or process dependent system, if we can define process as an operation within a larger framework of interactions that compose a system. Perhaps it's a bit like quantum mechanics. Definitions may change with scale.

But what I find particularly fascinating is how the query applies to musical instruments because modern musical instruments represent not simply tools, or the products of systems, but system specific tools. In this way, a piano, for instance, is very different than a hammer, which can lend itself to a (wider) variety of systems.

And it may be that the more complex the tool, the more more system specific it is, or that tools, once assuming an arbitrary level of complexity are best thought not as tools but as machines, if we can put machines (and instruments) into another (also arbitrary) category.

Either way, I stumbled when some people answered the query by suggesting that certain systems, such as piano keyboard organization, were anachronistic systems simply because they were complicated to learn or implement.

This one really threw me because I've long thought that the piano proved an example of technology that one needn't improve upon. In fact, I've long used the piano, and by extension the keyboard, as an example of a system from a prior age that continues to serve us well today. It also strikes me as a perfect example of a system embodied in a machine, i.e. the tool is the system made physically manifest. But here was a gentleman arguing it was a jerry-rigged device with too many key signatures to learn (or rather, that each key required a different physical execution).

Well, if it suits you, you could do as Irving Berlin did and outfit your piano with a lever that permits the player to memorize but one pattern, C or F# major say, and then essentially stick shift into the more difficult fingerings. Or, if electronics suit you, you can simply press the transpose button on your electronic keyboard.

However, if there were a musical instrument that I thought might seem out of date, I might suggest the pipe organ. Not because I think pipe organs sound old fashioned (I think they sound great), but because the primary function of many 'stops' and pipes of these behemoth instruments are intended to mimic other instruments. As a result, we might, some centuries later, suggest that because the synthesizer presents us with more sound in a smaller package, the pipe organ might now be considered an anachronism when compared to a modern synthesizer. (Although, personally, I'm not yet ready to replace every pipe organ with a MIDI keyboard, no matter how stunning current sampling or modeling technology.

Yet another instrument that might tempt my vote as fabricated upon an obsolete system is the guitar. Five strings are tuned in perfect fourths while one remaining string is tuned by a major third. This system of tuning is made all the more peculiar when compared to other string instruments, which are tuned by fifths. Coming from a violin background, I imagined the original guitar makers to be simultaneously brilliant craftsmen, able to bend wood and hammer frets, and yet somehow incapable of understanding a concept as simple as an ascending Circle of Fifths.

Because it is that one string tuned by a third that always throws a wrench into the advancement of every beginning guitar student. Not to mention that the matrix-like quality of a fretboard requires those dedicated to learning the instrument to navigate a seemingly endless number of patterns for any given key.

Oh, but were learning the guitar simply a matter of memorizing the position of 12 keys. Instead, a scale, which is a perfectly linear thing on a piano (up and down), stretches out in every single direction on a guitar –up, down, left, right, diagonal this way, diagonal that. In fact, one can even ascend a scale while descending on the fretboard and vice versa, which would feel a bit to a pianist like playing the high notes in the bass register.

Start anywhere: Go anywhere. It's a recipe for both free improvisation and madness.

But see, yes, it's madness, but it's just that kind of madness that turns out to be quite fun. And once one has accustomed oneself to navigating the fret board with some ease, it becomes quite evident that your television remote notwithstanding, simplicity is not always an improvement when it comes to the arts.

Certainly, simplicity is paramount to utilitarian activities. And the simplicity provided by toy or electronic instruments might enable a layman or beginner to feel immediate enjoyment as a music maker, and that's always good thing.

However, as Music theory and the machines we call instruments collectively represent a complex system for communication, the system provides users infinite possibility, and like language, mastery necessitates environmental access from a young age, prolonged study and intense pursuit, i.e. practice, practice practice.

Fortunately, mastery (of music, language or any other thing) is not required for clear communication, professional success, spiritual enlightenment, personal fulfillment, securing a mate or the enjoyment of most common social interactions.

In this regard, one might think of the art of teaching a subject, such as music, as not so much presenting a set of rules or processes, but as a systemic flow which one must approach at just the right place in order to gain successful passage. A bit like merging onto a highway. After that, speed, complexity and fluidity of execution are eventualities (in the persistent and enthusiastic student).

It might also be noted that some systems are eliminated on the basis of taste alone, rather than issues of functionality. For instance, tuning technology has allowed steel pan makers to create instruments which sound with a more accurate pitch center than their predecessors. However, to my ears the slightly imperfect steel drums of yesteryear sound more magical. It may be that in the quest for perfection we lose a bit of magic, and I'm not convinced that's always a good thing.

Beauty and simplicity are sometimes used as synonyms, and I think this is a mistake. Presented as such, simplicity is very often an experience as related by an observer or audience member. But for the performing artist, Beauty is generally produced by the control of a complex network of nuance and patterning. And in regard to music especially, any expression within a work that presents as beautiful often appears as such within a context designed to evoke an emotional response in a listener.

So while audiences may judge musical systems as effective based on a notion that the results are beautiful and therefore simple, but whether such systems are effortless to operate is another matter altogether.

In fact, when it comes to systems in music –and as to whether some systems we live with today which were designed for a world of the past, might or might not be anachronisms– I'm inclined to believe that that it is simple systems are likely to wear quickly and fade from our lives unless they acquire a level of complexity which transforms them from 'tools' into 'instruments', which in the hands of an artist, become capable of transforming theory and momentary impulse into timeless communication.