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.