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.

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