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Saturday, January 6, 2007 -- 1:11 pm

In the December 31 NY Times there's an article by a distinguished cognitive scientist with a background in the music industry. The article contains the following comments:

This is an interesting point. It's a commonplace, I suppose, that over the history of western music composers have had a growing interest in timbre. While 18th century compositional styles passed melodies between instruments rather casually, tone quality simply being a means of introducing variety, romantic composers gave a lot more thought to the effects of different tone qualities. The entire notion of a "tone poem" illustrates this fairly well, and I get the impression that orchestration was a rather haphazard discipline until the 1800's. Traditional sensibilities about tonality were severely eroded over the course of the 20th century, to the point that few people notice that many film and television scores are simply not tonal compositions, and tend to be atmospheric pieces rather than harmonically motivated.

The primary reason why these comments interest me, however, is that it seems to reflect a shift in the aesthetics of music. A long time ago I borrowed heavily from Kant's Critique of Judgment to argue that music appreciation depended on our subconscious perception of formal structures within the music that generated, and then surpassed, certain cognitive expectations. I see that a book has recently been published that, to judge from its title, argues a similar thesis based on cognitive neuroscience. I also followed Kant in drawing a distinction between the pleasure that derived from these kinds of deep formal structures, most easily identifiable in music but also arguably appearing in many forms of natural beauty, as well as painting, sculpture, architecture and, as I've mentioned earlier, perhaps grammar, and pleasure that isn't cognitive per se but is generated simply through the stimulation of our senses, and typically involves physical use, exertion, or consumption -- visceral pleasures, not the form of the thing. I realize this is something I'm going to have to explore in considerable detail because Kant excites nothing if not confusion, and it's been a while since I waded through Judgment.

The connection, as I see it, is that I don't see unchanging timbre as having an internal form or structure in the relevant aesthetic sense, i.e., as something likely to generate both expectations and subsequent surprises. I understand that modern composers and musicians may carefully craft the tone they use, but this article suggests that once they've adopted it, there's no subsequent variation -- a single note is enough for the musician and piece to be identifiable. (I suppose the fact that we can identify the piece, and not simply the musician, is actually an argument that the timbre does vary in interesting ways, but I think there are other factors involved -- voicing, instrumentation, the particular pitches involved, the ways in which the timbre of each of instrument varies with volume and pitch -- that can adequately explain our ability to identify specific pieces. After all, I can identify quite a few classical pieces after a few seconds, regardless of the performers involved.) But anyway, my point is that a shift in the cause of musical enjoyment from a perception of pitch, harmony, and rhythm to an enjoyment of largely unvarying timbre may suggest that the appreciation of music is shifting less from the cognitive appreciation of form to the less cognitive appreciation of unvarying sensations, almost as if we were switching from admiring paintings to admiring individual color swatches.

I'm not prepared to argue that this trend, if it's happening, would necessarily be the end of the world. I fully realize that my tastes (Bach, for example) are no longer quite mainstream. My point is more to recognize that if a contemporary pop song composed mainly with an ear for timbre rather than for sophisticated harmony and rhythm ends up, in the long run, being aesthetically comparable to The Art of the Fugue, then my views on aesthetics will likely be incorrect.

At the same time, though, it seems to me that it would be entirely possible to create great music that is primarily timbre-driven, rather than harmonically driven, where the audience develops expectations about the changes in timbre of the piece that end up being surprised in interesting ways. If such a piece where regarded as superior, and contemporary, single-timbred pieces were regarded as boring in comparison, then I would regard my views on musical aesthetics to be somewhat vindicated.

Monday, January 1, 2007 -- 7:06 pm

Aside from the Harry Potter books, I haven't read science fiction or fantasy literature in decades. There are a couple reasons for this. One is that I found myself tiring of books, purportedly works of narrative fiction, that seemed to be more about certain ideas than about the characters who had to live with their consequences. Thus I found the psychology and politics in the story -- what made it a story -- pretty weak. But more than that, very few authors seemed to be interested in thinking those ideas through to their logical conclusion, or informing their premises with the slightest hint of realism. An unexamined premise that the villain is "pure evil" or will bring on a reign of "total chaos" will probably interest me more for its lack of philosophical coherence than for the epic struggle that's supposed to sweep me along. (See also my early post on the incoherent idea of magic.) Which I suppose makes it all the more ironic that the genre I'm most interested in writing in is science fiction.

(I will not commit the faux pas tiresome step of talking about my writing rather than simply presenting it. I am under no delusions that what I have to say about my writing, in the absence of the writing itself, is of any use to anyone. And I am not using writing about my writing as a way to postpone its long and terrible gestation.)

What I will say is that science fiction, done (in my view) properly, has so much more that it needs to get right. You can no longer take for granted the technology, scientific understanding, art, language, sociology, or political structures of your time, nor do you have the comparative luxury of being able to research, say, the material culture of the medieval Slavic republics, to make sure that your narrative rings true. Instead, you have to imagine everything, and make sure that everything you've imagined makes sense on its own terms, and makes sense given what little we know about how the world works. No easy task. So the genre was roughly a century old, more or less, before Star Wars came along, but that movie was the first to imagine another world (the past, technically) where things were old and battered, with a checkered history, rather than clean and shiny off the assembly line. It is, after all, the history of things that makes them what they are -- if that doesn't make me sound too much like Hegel.

The gentle reader should know better than to fear that my story, upon delivery, will obsess solely on the languages of another world, but I will make the additional gesture of reassurance of choosing an altogether different topic as my example: metabolism. A long-standing interest of mine has been the ability of life (archaea, mainly, aside from crustaceans and tube worms along the sea vents) to derive energy from their environment through the use of substances other than oxygen: hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, etc. There are even some bacteria that metabolize iron or uranium. But are these alternate metabolic pathways as efficient or productive as oxygen? In an imaginary environment that could support both oxygen-breathers and hydrogen sulfide-breathers, are the two on a par, or does the oxygen breather enjoy a competitive advantage?

Perhaps my ability to care whether I get such details right will prevent my story from ever being finished. But I'd like not to think so.

Monday, January 1, 2007 -- 6:22 pm

Esperanto has never really been on my radar screen before. Of course I'd heard of it, though I've never studied it. Honestly, given that my interest in languages has always been about expressibility and structure, the idea of an artificial language simply as a means of communication never had much attraction for me. I may pick it up at some point, although if my goal is universal communication there are several others that I've justifiably assigned higher priority.

But the language caught my attention in an altogether unexpected way when I came upon an offhand remark in Umberto Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language about a month ago. Not being a reader of Mein Kampf, I had simply never been aware that Esperanto was a particular target of Nazi persecution. Precisely why it was such a target, and the role of its speakers in German wartime politics, is something that I will have to research with some care. There are rumors in my family's history that my German grandparents were active in anti-fascist groups in Germany during the war. Whether there is any truth to this at all (instead of merely wishful thinking) is something that not even my informant can substantiate with any confidence. He was very young at the time, and any survivor of a reign of terror will be familiar with the precautions necessary to preserve secrets, and lives. But my informant tells me that my grandmother tried to teach him Esperanto. Even though it seems they never got very far with it, that bit of information could take on a great deal of significance depending on the timing -- before or after the end of the war, for example. My understanding is that Esperanto was outlawed in Germany starting in 1939, which would make speaking it during the war a criminal act, best avoided by anyone who disliked attention. Anyway, I imagine that that sort of heroism is too much to expect of my ancestors, although there seems to be plenty of courage tucked away elsewhere in the story. If this interest in Esperanto started after the war, what would its significance be? My informant says he was taught a little Esperanto not only at home, but at a local Polizeisportverein (after the war, obviously), which apparently served not only as a fitness center but as a recruiting ground for clandestine operatives. (Much more on that another time.) But I can't imagine that the language would enjoy an immediate rebound in the first half-dozen years after the war. Fear, suspicion, and hostility would undoubtedly linger for quite a while. So I wonder what can be gleaned from my informant's personal history, and that of my grandparents, from their apparent interest in Esperanto in the first decade after the war.

Monday, January 1, 2007 -- 6:19 pm

In addition to some other experiments and research, I will probably also start posting the results of some of my genealogical research here. Given my own and others' privacy concerns, I will probably disguise names and birthdates for the time being.

Monday, January 1, 2007 -- 11:56 am

The October 20 issue of Science has yet another article on "stereotype threat", which appears to be the phenomenon by which awareness that you're the subject of a stereotype has a way of impeding your academic performance. This study measured women's performance on math tests before and after reading passages discussing the possible causes (genetic, experiential) of gender differences in performance in math and science. The article contains the interesting comment "These studies demonstrate that stereotype threat in women's math performance can be reduced, if not eliminated, when women are presented with experiential accounts of the origins of stereotypes. People appear to habitually think of some sex differences in genetic terms unless they are explicitly provided with experiential arguments."

So it appears that telling people that they're at an innate disadvantage is, in measurable terms, a self-fulfilling prophecy, but telling people that environmental reasons can explain that stereotype can partially remedy the damage. You have to wonder, though, about the actual causal mechanisms at play here. I find it hard to believe that a discriminatory comment would actually impair someone's mathematical ability; I'd think it'd be far more likely that hearing such comments would be sufficiently upsetting to distract the test-taker from her appointed task. And if that's true, that would suggest that stereotypes do their damage by disrupting motivation and the ability to concentrate.

But does that explain enough of the phenomenon to be meaningful? Probably not. I remember participating in a philosophy discussion many years ago where a writer argued that people received a lot of guidance from society about the behavior choices available to them in the form of "life scripts" -- templates, delivered through books, tv shows, movies, and the antics of public figures -- that outline how we are expected to behave in various situations and how to direct the course of our life at pivotal moments. This seems to be a roundabout way of arguing for the importance of real and fictional role models. As a source of motivation, and as a way of instructing people about the consequences of certain choices in life, there would seem to be some truth in that. But motivation will only get you so far. Positive role models, and the absence of stereotypes, might, over the long term, persuade you to practice and persevere until you overcome personal or situational challenges. But motivation alone will not imbue you with the ability to solve most intellectual problems. (If that were the case, I'd be much better at fathoming the world's mysteries than I am.) And when a pep rally is the only thing you have to keep you going, there are times when you might as well be running on empty.

Monday, January 1, 2007 -- 11:47 am

A second persimmon, indoors, has decided it's spring. This'll be a long growing season.

Sunday, December 31, 2006 -- 5:48 pm

Since Organic Chemistry is a field that (like so many others) I still need to educate myself about, I guess I never appreciated just how much of the discipline is devoted to the problem of synthesizing and purifying desirable compounds. An article in the October 20 issue of Science ("The Future of Organic Synthesis") brought that home for me. Most of my chemical reading has to do with the culinary and medicinal properties of the world's plants, but even those books that discuss the extraction of tinctures and essential oils (something I've yet to try) don't bother to refine the product any further. Instead, I imagine, you're left with small amounts of hundreds of different chemicals all mixed together in your little glass vial. Now, I'd certainly be up for trying to extract and refine the different chemicals extracted from the bark of my cinnamon tree or a cacoa pod, in the fullness of time. But this sounds like an extraordinarily wasteful process, that to be worthwhile would have to operate on a scale far beyond what my little windowsill can produce. Perhaps tinctures, with their lower concentrations, are more economically and environmentally sound for the home alchemist.

Sunday, December 31, 2006 -- 5:03 pm

I realize that even leaving aside its political aspects, the notion of a traditionally pure culture is a bit of a fabrication, because commerce, migration, and cultural influences have been shaping the world since the beginning of history. It's hard to imagine (though a worthwhile exercise) to imagine what European food was like before the tomato and potato were brought back from the Americas. But I get the impression that people cling far more zealously to the food they're used to than they do to their music. These days there are hundreds of cookbooks (I own a fair number) trying to recreate cherished home cooking from every corner of the world. The ingredients usually aren't that hard to find, assuming you want them (I substitute peanut butter for the shrimp paste -- sorry, I just can't), and without too much trouble you can prepare a meal that reasonably captures some aspect of the region's cultural heritage.

Music seems to be altogether different. Maybe this the insidious creep of western hegemony, or maybe it's just the all-around scholarship deficit. But I've found that it's not always easy to find samples of traditional or indigenous music from around the world as they existed before Western rhythms and idioms and, most importantly, the well-tempered octave, had made their way around the world. Ethnomusicology is apparently a field with even fewer published authors than my other interests, but I simply haven't seen a study anywhere that compares, say, the western divisions of the octave in vogue in the 17th and 18th centuries with the various tonal schemes prevalent elsewhere. I've tracked down some recordings of African Pygmy music that sound interestingly non-Western (and polyphonic!), but most contemporary world music, whether from Africa, China, or Central Asia, seems to be built around Western harmonies. Is the Western harmonic scheme simply so attractive (or infectious) that all other tonal schemes fall before it? Is it that western musical instruments, so attractive and well-designed, are designed for a western tonal scheme? Or is the tonic/ dominant dichotomy somehow universal? That I doubt, considering how recently it rose to prominence.

The same question goes for rhythm. Our western notion of dividing time into units of twos and threes is well and good, and seems to be contagious. But I'm also aware that some traditional music, such as India's has strong polyrhythmic traditions such as 11 against 12. Are these polyrhythms disappearing as local musical styles become more westernized?

Sunday, December 31, 2006 -- 3:33 pm

I find it interesting how our culture appears to have shifted away from the notion of prospective New Year's Resolutions, and instead seems to dwell on various lists of "best ofs" for the prior year. Does this reflect a loss of momentum or initiative? By itself, probably not. I won't pursue the point. Even in our extroverted culture (introverts being positively maligned, if not mocked outright), the exercise of taking careful stock of what you've learned about yourself over the past year and resolving self-improvement is a particularly personal one, not lending itself to drama or publicity.

I will be publishing neither a retrospective list nor a set of resolutions. What I am toying with is using a corner of this site to develop some of the background material for a piece of fiction I've been planning for years. I won't be publishing any excerpts for quite some time -- there are still hundreds of chapters to be planned and written, and I'm a perfectionist. But I may start to organize the more interesting results of my background research, to provide this site with a little more content.