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face the music (the great vibrator)

june 25-july 09, 2004.

Most of us probably will agree upon what is meant by sound.

Not so with music.

I recently (once again) came across a number of writings and discussions on the subject, that is as ancient as it is impossible to grasp. A discussion that surfaces again and again, in many guises. For instance: should one, can one, distinguish between 'sound art' and 'music'? If 'musical sounds' are sounds produced by a musical instrument, then what is a musical instrument? And if the composing of music consists in the structuring of sonic events, then what do we mean by a (musical) structure?

Fun, and at times instructive, as these discussions may be, they invariably - and probably necessarily so - fail to provide even modestly satisfying answers. Any attempt to define music raises more questions than it answers. Either that, or one settles for something circular, as in 'music is that what musicians make'. Evidently. "Defining music is as difficult as defining art", the opening sentence of the Wikipedia entry "Definitions of music" read [at the time I wrote this entry]. Which is kind of obvious, as soon as one agrees that music is an art, of course.

It got me thinking. And I started to take books off my shelves here and there, some of which, dust covered, hadn't been off their little niche for much of a decade, reading this and then reading that, verifying if I remembered such and so rightly, or check again what it was again that him or her then had said about it... I should've known better. The pile of books on the small tables in my office just kept growing, as did the list of related bookmarks in my browsers...

And willy-nilly this soundblog entry began drifting off to ...

[ musik? ]

"[A]t a given time and in a given society (though principally in the west), there is never a single, culturally dominant conception of music; rather, we see a whole spectrum of conceptions, from those of the entire society to those of a single individual[,]" Jean-Jacques Nattiez quite rightly observes in his Music and Discourse (1990). But even if one would agree to limit the extension of any given concept of 'music' to actually sound(ing) events, thus excluding possible representations of these (scores, for instance): "[t]he sounds people accept as music vary according to historical era, location, and cultural and individual taste" (Wikipedia: Music).

Is 'music' whatever an I (group) considers it to be?
Of course it is.
And, as far as the 'working musician' is concerned: it'd better be.
[ Even though this apparent 'freedom of designation' will be of a rather restricted sort: one that is concerned mostly with erecting (or removing) stop signs along paths leading out from a vast, and - within the scope of a given time, place, culture - generally unquestioned 'center'. Apart from the occasional Don Quichotes that decide to henceforth accept and produce as 'music' nothing but, say, rhythmic bursts of white noise lasting no less than one and no longer than four minutes - such claims however, if made, would almost certainly be essentially false rhetoric, pose and provocation. (Unless the Quichotes would turn out to be aliens, then maybe ... ) ]
For it may be impossible to circumscribe and tie down, it is equally unfeasible to simply 'write it away'. We can not but face it. Music is a datum of our conscious experience, apparently residing in a 'something' happening between an I and its perceiving of sounds in a non-factual (a musical :-) way. It will not care what we say it should be.

"Structure in music is its divisibility into successive parts [...]. The material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing. [...] Structure is properly mind-controlled[,]" it says somewhere, in this order, in John Cage's Silence.

These zennish phrases of course are as profound as they are obvious, and a great many books about 'music' indeed are no more than lengthy digressions on (especially the first three of) these 'facts', usually approached from a specific (physical [acoustics], psychological, sociological, anthropological, philosophical, semiological, political(!) ...) angle, while dealing only with one or a couple of specific 'classes' of 'musics'. And, depending - mostly - on the author's skills as an author, some of these are less boring than others; but even if an author manages to keep your attention until the very end, I do think that one is justified in stating that the ratio 'useful and deep insights into the nature of music' to 'number of pages written on the subject' borders on the negligible.

Novel tentative groping towards answers as to just how musical structure arises and is mind-controlled, what is the 'something' happening when an I perceives of sounds in a musical way, have only quite recently surfaced within the framework of cognitive sciences and neurology. It is rather curious indeed that the study of music as a major human brain function has "for some time been relatively neglected," as is stated in the synopsis of The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music (2000), a collection of conference papers dedicated to these questions (aimed at neuroscientists and psychologists). "Like language," the book's editors declare, "music is a complex, rule-governed activity that seems specific to humans, and associated with a specific brain architecture. [...] Music offers an opportunity to better understand the organization of the human brain." And vice versa, I'd say :-) ..

A belated interest. In the first ten years (1994-2003) of its existence, the (interdisciplinary!) Journal of Consciousness Studies managed to publish not a single paper treating questions related to music and mind. With the exception of a musician's complaint (Bruno Deschênes - Partial Views and Universals: comments of a musician on 'Art and the Brain', JCS 8 (1), 2001) about precisely that absence - most notably in the two special issues the journal dedicated to 'Art and the Brain' (JCS 6 (June/July), 1999 :: JCS 7 (8/9), 2000) - and blaming it on "our Western society [being] primarily a visual-oriented society".

The editors recently made up for it. This year's march/april issue again is an 'Art and the Brain' issue, this time at least partially dedicated to music (JCS 11 (3/4), 2004). It is an interesting read. What I like about a such journal issue, is the being addressed by a multitude of voices (authors) that, in a relatively small number of pages, need to & set out to seduce you, convince of the validity and value, of their point of view, their approach.

In "From Sounds to Music" Mari Tervaniemi and Elvira Brattico try to put forward evidence for the - 'of course this is what one would expect' - thesis that "neural circuits are more readily activated by musicals sounds implicitly learned than by unfamiliar sounds". Right on! Thank you, girls!

Bruce Katz's "A measure of musical preference" is also 'neuro'-technically and -speculatively oriented, though somewhat more audacious in its approach. Bruce argues "that a musical passage will be preferred to the extent that it induces synchrony in those brain structures that are responsible for processing the passage".

Hmm ...'Synchrony' ... 'A measure of musical preference' ...?

Prof. Katz verifies his thesis, not by somehow measuring the 'synchrony' of a real life brain listening to the music it prefers - it is not clear at all the what it is that one should measure -, but by simulation, using a "network of interacting integrate and fire neurons responsible for the processing of musical stimuli" ... based upon a 'note recognition model' first proposed by ... prof. Katz! ... So maybe this explains why I kept hearing a little voissy voice nagging on about Katz's 'recognition model' just modeling Katz's own 'musical preference', all the way through while reading Katz's paper ... ?

[ The paper starts with the example of a random melody containing 32 notes, in one of our western 'keys', each note chosen over an octave range, and each with one of four possible durations.
One has, of course, 3232 of such melodies.
"Yet," Dr. Katz continues, "only a fraction of these would be deemed musically acceptable, and of this set, perhaps only a tiny proportion thereof would be found enjoyable by most listeners." Well, I actually *love* to listen to randomly generated strings of sound, in a musical way, and I'd like to challenge Bruce to come up with such a 32 note string that is unacceptable 'musically', without him beforehand limiting what it means to be 'musical' ... And I am certainly not the only one that actually enjoys listening to devices that 'randomly' or 'pseudo-randomly' output ... well, music ... On the other hand, yes, some of such devices's outputs I will certainly appreciate more - like better - than others... So the notion of a 'set of preferred 32 notes strings' might make sense for an individual, or a certain group of people...
The next sentence in the paper reads: "To the extent that this reduced set is culturally and individually invariant, musical preference presents us with a problem that is well-defined." ... But of course this 'reduced set' is far from being culturally and individually 'invariant'. How could it be? Even if one forgets about contexts - which, I would say, are essential for the 'acceptance' of a given 'string' of sounds as 'more or less musical... ]

It's the use of the term 'musical preference' that bothers me, really. And equating 'musical preference' to a postulated "existence of a core set of what may be termed musical tendencies, i.e. trends that appear in most or the majority of musical examples, and ideally in differing genres." That one's brain, and more specifically its sound processing and music experiencing faculties, one way or another will be just that extra bit 'in sync' when you are listening to your - and let me stress: to your - preferred tunes ... well, yeah, doesn't that seem plausible enough again? ... good, good, good, ..., good vibrations, hein? ...

After this it actually was sort of a relief to dive head first into the grandiose speculations that are making up Joseph Goguen's contribution: "Musical Qualia, Context, Time and Emotion". Here's a man that will not let himself nor the music be tied down: "Our approach is intended to apply [also] to contemporary musical manifestations, such as noise music, digital multimedia productions, free jazz improvisation, music sculptures, environmental music, etc." Good. Better! Pretty much all of the important issues, as relevant as they are 'difficult', related to our experience and intuition of music are being addressed in this holistic approach: contextuality, memory, time, emotion ... And those little infamous naggers known as qualia... the 'redness of red', "that what's left after the objective aspects are subtracted" ... which, some of course will argue, is nil ... Not Joseph Goguen, though. On the contrary. Musical qualia are at the heart of his groping towards a 'model of musical understanding'. "Qualia," Goguen states, "are not separable from experience[. They are] conscious experiences having unity and duration."

The ideas exposed look interesting enough, but the paper contains but the very, very barest of a sketch. I'd be interested in fact to see some of this at work, and described in some detail; to verify whether there's more to the 'fancy math' cited, almost casually, than mere 'name dropping' and... 'metaphor'... [cf. : "[I]mprovisers do not behave like particles in physics: they rarely linger in low energy basins of attraction, and often try to avoid even getting near them; they sometimes 'defy gravity' [...] and jump to a higher complexity; and they sometimes surf an 'edge of chaos' for a bit, before veering off in a new direction[.]" - p.139]

The most compelling paper in this third volume of the JCS's 'Art and the brain' series is by Vijay Iyer, who describes himself as a musician foremost, and 'merely' an occasional scholar. His "Improvisation, temporality & embodied experience" is a modest and short, but very insightful essay.
The author argues, rightly so, "that music perception and cognition are embodied, situated activities": music takes time, it is an "['in-time' process,] embedded in time; not only does the time taken matter, but in fact it contributes to the overall structure." (This as opposed to over-time processes, [which] are merely contained in time; the fact that they take time is of no fundamental consequence for the result. Most of what we call computation occurs over time.")

In an earlier post I distinguished factual and musical listening, and I expressed my conviction that it is in the act of listening that music may or may not arise, through a conscious act of attention. Vijay Iyer comes to a very similar conclusion when he writes: "[M]usic can be viewed as a consequence of active listening; it is, at some level through informed listening that music is constructed. [... This] allows the listener the improvisatory freedom to frame any moment or any experience as a musical one. [I]t is within the improvising listener's power to re-construct music from sounds in her environment, and to reclassify perceptual experiences of arbitrary scale, complexity, and uniqueness, actively reframing the tumult of everyday action as music."

[ sound ]

These are pretty much constants: there is but little dispute about listening and sound being essential to (the experience of) music ... even though some indeed do argue that sound is nothing but vibrations within certain (hearable) limits, and that, consequently any vibrations whatsoever, duly 'transposed', may provide material for MenschenMusik, can be made 'to sound'... (sure, that's fine with me)

It is thus that 'New Scientist' could announce on october 30th of last year that the "Big Bang sounded more like a deep hum than a bang". But then again, only recently, on june 12th of this year, the same periodical lets us know that, actually, "the Universe began not with a bang but with a low moan, building into a roar that gave way to a deafening hiss" ... [ moan-roar-hiss sound ] Now was it a bang, a thum, a hum or a moan? All in the ears of the beholder, of course ... :-)

Like the other day, when the Dutch national football team with all the luck in the world reached the semi-finals of the European championship, kicking out the Swedish team during a penalty shoot-out, and I watched a 30 second video summary on the BBC's web site ... I received the video's sound on my end of the cable distorted by an up-tempo rhythmic phasing, which, combined with the reporter's near-histery, the yells of the crowd and the referee's whistle made this short sonic reportage into instant sonic poetry ... all, all, all in the ears of the beholder ...

Yes! Musik! She's the one that's moooving, she is the Great Vibrator, now isn't she?

So is this then what the 'future of music' will bring? Something more general even than 'mere' sound art? ... "vibrations art" ... ?

Mark Bain is one of those that call themselves (or are being called) 'vibrations artists'. Bain is the creator of 'StartEndTime', a sound piece based upon seismological data from New York during the 2001 9-11 terrorist attacks, data that he obtained from the academic 'earthquake-listening stations' in the area. ("The day the earth screamed" - The Guardian). As with the 'Big Bang' sounds, of course such data need quite a bit of 'transposing' in order to become audible. But they can, and they do. I heard Mark Bain's piece a few months ago (february 15th on ResonanceFM), and I'd say the score does give a pretty good impression of what the piece sounds like... [ fragment sound ] But of course the true impact of "StartEndTime" is in the historical event to which it, very directly, refers... Knowing a sound's 'referent' can not but dramatically change your perception ... which brings us to yet some other, related, fascinating topics: those of sound and meaning, sound and memory ...

I'll come back to this later.
For now let me finish by recounting a recent personal & very pleasing sonic experience, very 'vibration' and very music.
It was part of Vert Pituite's fourteenth 'belle soirée', last month, june 16th in Les Voûtes.
'Vibration artist' Michael Gendreau installed a couple of 'accelerometers' (used, for instance, for the detection of weak spots in concrete structures) and thus captured the vibrations of the ongoing traffic some meters above our heads, near the 'Very Big Library', in the rue neuve Tolbiac. As Michael told me afterwards, there wasn't much need for treatment and/or transposition, and we heard the traffic and other environmental sounds more or less in real time as they were being captured by Michael's equipment. It was a soothing, very rhythmic, droning and humming, accompanied in the beginning by the far away lowish sounds of a rock band that apparently was rehearsing in the nearby 'Frigos'. A composition, yes, that I actually found extremely pleasant to listen to. So much so that, in fact, I dozed off in the very middle of Michael's performance, only to wake up again to the noise of the audience's applause at the end. Sure that I joined them clapping. I told Will Guthrie, who was sitting next to me, that I had fallen asleep. "I know," he replied, "you were snoring ...!"


He was just joking ... ;-)

[ Next related SB-entry: (Mark Bain) meanwhile in Amsterdam ...]

tags: music, vibrations, sound

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