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Saturday, March 1, 2008 -- 8:13 am

At some point in high school I managed to track down various retellings of the Faust story: Goethe's, Marlowe's, and Mann's are the ones that come to mind most immediately, because of their titles, but there was also Bulgakov's delightful The Master and Margarita. I never did get around to Gounod's opera. And there are other stories that, for one reason or another, arguably belong in the same category even if there was no character named "Faust" -- arguments could be made for Frankenstein or The Picture of Dorian Gray to be included. Looking back on that exercise now, it would be interesting to examine (with a lawyer's eye, naturally) the differences between the bargains struck in each case. Goethe's Faust escaped damnation because of a loophole, if I recall properly, in that he was never satisfied with his lot as was a requirement of the agreement. Mann's Faustus, on the other hand, was given precisely 24 years of musical genius without an escape clause -- which may have been motivated by wanting a suitable political allegory for interbellum Germany, if I remember this all properly.

But a high school student, contemplating the Faust story without the comfort of real obligations, doesn't appreciate it in quite the same way as someone who's been living and working for a few years and has dire choices to make about the correct allocation of time and money. More on that, perhaps, another time; relatively few people seem to grapple with it in Faustian terms anyway. I see the Faustian bargain as a knowing negotiation of benefits for consequences, a deal you deliberately either accept or reject. (Whether things are really so cut and dried from a theological standpoint is another issue reserved for later discussion.) What people seem to grapple with more often, in life and fiction, is far more brazen: gambling everything on an uncertain result, where your decision is only justified, if at all, after the fact. There was one philosophy seminar I took in college that briefly touched on this issue, terming it "moral luck".

Moral luck has been a difficult concept for me ever since. If our own morality really depends on things outside of our control -- and is, therefore, almost wholly arbitrary -- then there's probably an argument to be made for its losing its value as a category altogether. On the other hand, it seems to me that anyone who allows themself to end up in a situation where the morality of their conduct depended on contingent factors was probably being reckless, or at least negligent, which are moral lapses. But to judge from popular culture and recent history, I don't get the impression that a lot of other people see things that way; and many who would reject the view that "the end justifies the means" would be more willing to agree that a gamble is justified by its consequences, overlooking the fact that a gamble, too, is a choice of means.

Against this backdrop, the Faustian bargain may take on a somewhat different flavor. Faust's bargain, in at least most versions of the story, has consequences only for himself. You might criticize his priorities or call his decision foolish, but for all that he accepts eternal damnation, it's hard to call his bargain immoral. And there may be an argument that Goethe's version turns the issue of moral luck on its head: if Faust saw himself as condemned to eternal damnation anyway, because he found the limitations on his existence and ambition so confining, then his pact starts to make sense as perhaps the only possible way of escaping eternal torment.

Thursday, February 28, 2008 -- 9:36 pm

I read recently not too long ago, I think in This is Your Brain on Music that no matter how many CDs we happen to own, we tend to listen to no more than 5-7 of them on a regular basis. What a depressing tendency -- it's as if, even in seeking inspiration, we tend to fall into a rut. I've actually been making a conscious effort to diversify my listening, not only within my existing collection, but by exploring other traditions. Music deliberately chosen for being "challenging", i.e., good for us, can be a somewhat grim prospect, though, even if the CDs are hunted down and purchased with enthusiasm. (And so a vestigial thrill of the hunt survives, even today, in base consumerism, as it congratulates itself for its refined motives. Sigh.) I remember someone in college telling me, quite seriously, that he shouldn't buy any more music for a while because he had CDs of Scriabin and Chopin (specifically Mazurkas and Polonaises of the latter, if I recall) that he needed to "work through". Of course, he was a pianist. For my part, I've accumulated a happy stash of ethnomusicological recordings from around the world that warrant serious academic study, primarily for an amateur survey I hope to do some day on non-Western polyphony. What I've listened to so far is generally so foreign as to be of somewhat dubious entertainment value -- quite unlike Bach, say, that I can listen to uncritically as well as intellectually. Tibetan throat singing is a stellar example of foreign sound; Gamelan seems more accessible. So for the more studious/pedantic of us, there's probably some selection of our recordings that serve an academic or purportedly salubrious role that isn't precisely the same aesthetic function as the others, and may tend to be avoided because of the real psychological effort involved in acquainting ourselves with them.

So why do we neglect the others? My working theory is that we are most drawn to listen to those CDs we vividly remember enjoying. This is a vicious circle, to some extent, because we're likely to most vividly recall the CDs we listened to most recently. But there may be something akin to branding going on here as well. I know I enjoy Beethoven symphonies, for example, but I don't listen to them terribly often. Every time I do, I tend to be surprised at how fresh and appealing they sound, and "fresh" and "appealing" aren't words I tend to associate with Beethoven the Brand -- rather, I tend to think of him as that author of monumental works who had to come to terms with his own fate and encroaching deafness, and then retro-analyze how I expect to react to his music. (This from someone who complains about other people not tasting food on its own terms.) But Beethoven almost certainly didn't see himself that way, at least not all the time, and so is much more complex and varied than the stereotype I've pinned on him. And his music shows it, too, if only I'd remember that. It's not branding alone, though -- because I don't think Beethoven's harmonies and forms stick in my mind the same way, say, Bach's do, and what I remember when I play Beethoven back in my head is less vivid, less richly colored, than the sounds I hear on the CD or attending a concert. So my ability to objectively assess what music I like most may be hampered by faulty methodology or faulty mental equipment (though I suppose some people would reach that conclusion based on my music collection alone). I could also see someone arguing, not altogether implausibly, that our self-image (which, as everyone knows, often has nothing to do with reality even for the most reflective and self-aware of us) may define us as a Bach-listener rather than a Beethoven-listener, and so our music selections may be informed in part by some kind of need to ratify our self-image, however incidentally. And finally, I suppose, there's just laziness and a desire to avoid disruption. The artist's purpose may not be to make people comfortable, but people assign it that role a lot anyway.

Thursday, February 28, 2008 -- 7:23 pm

Schoenberg, in A Theory of Harmony has as much of a theoretical agenda as the next writer (although a much more sophisticated one), but at least he has enough insight into the theory-making process for his comments to be meaningful. I find his comments particularly apt, for example, on the issue of some sound combinations being regarded as "harmonic" or "chordal", and others as "non-harmonic" or "accidental" primarily as an accident of our notation system. And our system of notation was predisposed to permit seventh chords a certain leniency not afforded to, say, ninth chords or other sound complexes that don't involve stacks of thirds: such as stacks of fourths, fifths, or other less gainly or regular arrangements.

This reminded me of a remark I've seen in various places that all of set theory, and indeed the entire foundation of western mathematics, derived from some erroneous assumption by Plato. And without wandering too far afield for the moment, it stands to reason that for many people, even or especially classically trained musicians and composers, our expectations about what combinations of pitches sound good together, and cogently follow one another, are less the creature of eternal laws of beauty, form, and overtone series, so much as practices legitimized by convenience of notation and the conventions of instrument design.

And so I find myself wondering, off and on, how I would go about formulating new theories of harmony for a new scheme of pitches, presumably microtonal in flavor? It's peculiar and a little disappointing that my initial instinct whenever I turn to this topic is to speculate what could be inferred about such intervals through comparison with the chromatic scale. This is exactly the wrong way to go about it. The most straightforward approach is to them as intervals in their own right rather than as unsettling or exotic sounds that can only be known through reference to the more familiar. This very much has the feel of uncharted territory. And so it's a surprising reminder of precisely how much perception is governed by preconception.

The chief impediment, of course, is easy access to microtonal instruments; even if I could reliably sing stepwise quarter-tone intervals, for example (and I've tried, off and on, with varying success), leaping is out of the question unless I have an exemplar to learn from, and I can't sing two at once. It's surprisingly difficult to find instruction on writing my own computer software to address this problem, but figuring that out on my own is much more likely than learning to build a microtonal keyboard.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 -- 8:23 pm

One of the benefits and pitfalls of participating in a information economy, especially as a professional in one, is the implicit pressure to Know Everything. The task is naturally impossible for finite beings, but pretending you know everyting is out of the question, too -- you'll be found out, be deemed untrusthworthy, and quickly find yourself penniless -- but knowing everything certainly seems to be what people expect when they turn to you for guidance. And if you don't know everything, they can always turn to someone else who is better at letting themselves appear to. So you end up having to strike an interesting balance between mastering as much information as humanly possible while carving out some time for a personal life and non-professional existence, without which, at the very least, you'll be unable to keep up appearances.

I suppose my own strategy here is neither better nor worse than most. There are the "research files" -- those ever-accumulating paper and electronic folders containing clipped articles that I intend to read someday. There are the stacks of books that I plow through methodically so I don't get caught completely ignorant of the subject. And there are, most desperately of all, the lists of things to research, learn about, or investigate before it's too late.

The fact is that I do inch along on each of these fronts, and so my fund of knowledge useful to the profession is always growing somewhat. But the basic problem with a knowledge economy is that if you spend all your time learning, you spend none of it actually providing the services that get you paid. And if you spend all your time providing services, you won't be on top of things for very long. I suppose this relates in some tangled way to the differences between theoretical and practical knowledge that I explored earlier in the week. Successful participation in a knowledge-based economy, after all, may depend a great deal simply on providing correct answers to factual questions. It may, on the other hand (and I suspect this is more the truth in my particular field) depend far more on how that knowledge is applied to novel questions, and the confidence to do so appropriately depends a great deal on experience, ironically enough, in successfully encountering the unexpected; I have noticed that no two clients ever come to me with precisely the same problem.

And this suggests another balance that needs to be struck -- the balance between acquiring a sufficient fund of factual knowledge from which to operate effectively (and more is invariably better, so long as the subject matter is chosen wisely), and a second fund of knowledge, which can also be thought of as habit, familiarity, practice, or experience, that consists of largely reflexive application of appropriate rules of analysis, generalization, and application to bridge the gap between the facts at your disposal and the problem that needs to be solved. As should be clear, this is not simply a matter of logical inference. It seems more to be a kind of educated risk-taking, based on familiarity with human nature, cause and effect, game theory, reasonable inferences about the world, and so on. Which, again, doesn't seem to be the sort of thing that anyone ever bothers to put down on paper. You would think, though, that in a knowledge economy this type of common sense would be highly prized and sought-after.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008 -- 9:22 pm

It's truly remarkable to me that a species like our own that has demonstrably evolved to interact socially can be comprised of individuals that, individually and as a whole, have little or no ability to accurately predict and understand the responses of others to our own words and actions. Presumably we can make such judgments better than some animals, and within our own species, some people have manifestly better insight than others. But no one is immune from the risk of faulty judgments, and I imagine that each of us makes serious mistakes in our evaluation of other people's intentions, motives, and actual or potential responses on a daily basis. Some of these errors may be the result of ambiguity -- I jotted down a list somewhere of more than a dozen things the phrase "I don't know" could actually mean, without including irony and sarcasm -- but others, such as the fundamental attribution error, are systemic. The problem is widespread enough that I have to ask: do we understand each other so poorly because doing so is actually impossible for various philosophical reasons (a position I don't think I could justify), or because it isn't sufficiently beneficial for natural selection to have much of an impact?

Phrasing the question that way does bring one point home -- although clear assessment of others' mental states is clearly of evolutionary advantage -- otherwise we (presumably) wouldn't have evolved the capacity for language or reading each other's glances, tones of voice, and facial expressions -- there's probably a line beyond which increasing sophistication is only of evolutionary advantage if other, unrelated people have the same traits and abilities. But it's not clear where that line is -- after all, there's definitely an advantage in knowing how other people would react to situation before they do, even if they don't have the same ability, and I would expect that for both warmakers and peacemakers that would have a certain amount of survival value.

I suspect I posed something of a false alternative, though. It could very well be that the ability to read each other's motives and predict their responses is partially acquired rather than wholly innate; given the high variability of human culture and the context-specific nature of the evidence we have to work with, this may even make sense. And that raises the question of whether this type of sensitivity can be taught to someone who doesn't have it, or needs to be taught actively in order to be acquired at all, or whether there's some middle ground where some people of a certain threshold sensitivity acquire a lot of it intuitively, but others need to be taught it if they're going to acquire it at all. This reminds me a lot of those (at the time) absolutely baffling classes sprinkled throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school, that covered such topics as "how to communicate and explain emotions using words" and "common techniques for problem solving". (The reason I found these classes baffling was because I didn't realize that for a lot of people this was revelatory material: that one way to solve a difficult problem is to break it down into manageable pieces, and another is to look at the required result and think about different things that might be useful to achieving it.) The politics of everyday interactions aren't a topic of much reflection or instruction these days (although I've been slowly compiling data for an all-comprehensive Textbook on Politics that I'll perhaps, some day, know enough to start writing about), though I do get the impression that various unread volumes of the Renaissance did make a general stab in this direction. And those volumes might be evidence supporting this third alternative -- because it seems to me that a lot of the political aphorisms we read from other times and places have, on their face, little or no direct application in contemporary society. People occasionally argue to the contrary, but they're usually trying to tap into the lucrative management-textbook market when they do so.

Monday, February 25, 2008 -- 9:12 pm

Note to self: compile an encyclopedia, with recipes and cultivating instructions, of all the great sauces, condiments, and spice mixtures of the world's great cooking traditions.

Sunday, February 24, 2008 -- 7:21 am

Being more than halfway through my subway reading of Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony, I've been making a point now and again of making sure I sit at the piano and plunk through his examples -- imagining the sounds as I'm reading just isn't the same, nor entirely accurate, and anyway it's usually pretty difficult for me to correctly imagine four tones at once, let alone their harmonic interactions. In other words: things usually sound worse in real life than I imagined. A couple things come to mind. One is that I'm still discovering chord progressions that, in retrospect, I've heard all my life, and yet were never covered in the gamut of solid theory-and-composition courses I took in college. (The whole borrowing of tones from the minor subdominant key is an area where I feel particularly cheated.) Another is that although most of the chord progressions sound good, a few sound truly horrible, at least to my conservative ear, and I have to imagine that they are better realized within actual compositions than enjoyed as harmonic abstractions. A third is that I won't get nearly as much out of the book as I'd like unless I actually do at least some of the exercises it prescribes. There's a natural impatience here: do I really have to do the preliminary exercises when it's the new chords I want to experiment with? In this particular case, probably not, considering I do have some prior training in this area.

But it does tend to reinforce a basic insecurity of mine about music, because I've always noticed a rift between musicians (if I can continue to count myself among them, after all this time). There are some musicians, primarily of a theoretical bent and often classically trained, who execute written music fairly well, but aren't comfortable with improvisation or imitating what they hear, and there are those who learned music practically, know little or no theory and may not be able to read notation, but are quite comfortable with improvisation and imitation. I don't think anyone would claim that the unschooled performer doesn't deserve to be called a musician, but what about the theoretician, whose deficiencies stem in large part with having too little practical experience with some of the basic day-to-day tasks of learning and performing music? The schools and the general public probably can't tell the difference, if they care at all, much like the general public assumes that being able to speak a language is an all-or-nothing proposition, easily mastered, and divides humanity into monoglots, biglots (who have some particular reason, often ethnic, for being able to speak a foreign language), and polyglots (who, without reflection, are assumed to speak all languages). But we theoreticians, I think, know we're out of our depth when it's time to step out on stage.

Is this to say there's a fundamental difference between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge? Actually, I don't think so. Everything you needed to know from a practical standpoint, in nearly every field, probably could be communicated in writing. The problem is that most, indeed nearly all, textbook writers fail to do so for reasons either of apathy or economy. Who would read such a book, after all, other than me? And who, other than someone of my temperament, would be interested in systematizing and expressing all that non-verbal knowledge in the first place? So the fact that the knowledge of a practical subject acquired through reading and study is often more cursory than the knowledge acquired through experience has far more to do with what people have bothered to commit to memory than the possible benefits that one type of learning may have over another. Anyway, I don't think that trying to define a difference between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge is really asking the right question, because it seems to me that the real difference between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge is linked to our response time in implementing that knowledge.

Practical knowledge is, in lot of ways, a matter of habit. It's not simply that we've done something a thousand times before and so have the words to describe what happens next at the tip of our tongue, but that we find a response presented to us, ready-made, that we merely have to adopt as our own. And so someone who has extensive experience trying to learn a language on the streets of a foreign city will have responses spring to mind as a matter of course, while someone who's studied the same language from a book, however apt a pupil, will find himself tongue-tied because he just doesn't have the same ingrained habits of listening (stimulus) and response that fill so many of the interstices of our conscious existence. So it seems to me that the primary difference between theoretical and practical knowledge isn't the mode in which that knowledge was acquired, but that theoretical knowledge is primarily conscious knowledge, which is slower and needs to be reasoned through each time, while practical knowledge is more habitual and largely unconscious knowledge, which is quickly and unthinkingly implemented in most cases.

This line of thinking may also support an interesting connection to Wittgenstein's questions about certainty that I discussed a while back. Theoretical or conscious knowledge (Hamlet) is deliberate and unsure of itself, like the classroom musician who steps out on stage, or the classroom soldier who steps out on the field of war. Practical or unconscious knowledge, like that of the seasoned performer or soldier, is confident: the hands know what to do even if the chattering mind does not. Confidence and certainty, then, don't derive from study and reflection, but from unconscious or semi-conscious habits, and if we want to attain certainty and confidence, we can only do so through practice.