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.

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