Re: Science, Knowledge, Understanding, Art and Wonder

Subject: Re: Science, Knowledge, Understanding, Art and Wonder
From: Kenneth Newby (
Date: Mon Sep 12 2005 - 15:46:51 EDT

Eliot's invocation of an ur-music reminded me of this from Henry Cowell:

"In the quasi-mythological theory of music, music goes on all the time
about us, but is inaudible unless brought into reality by a gamelan.
time-sequence is controlled by musical priests, who calculate where the
continuous music has arrived at any given moment. The great cycle is
years long, and once in every seven years the end of the old cycle and
beginning of the new is marked by the sounding of the great gong--said
be the world's largest--in the Sultan's temple. The tone lasts for
slightly over an hour, and when it is to be sounded, pilgrims from all
the East come to hear it. Once started, the music runs continuously
(though inaudiably[sic]) for the next seven years, and some of the main
smaller cycles are marked by the sounding of other large gongs in
temples. When a gamelan actually plays, it is thought that it merely
audible that which is already going on in the cosmos. One hears by way
introduction therefore, a few tones leading the gamelan to a main point,
for it to get in tune with the infinite, so to speak."

from "Music of Indonesia" by Henry Cowell in liner notes to 1961
Ethnic Library album of the same name [selections from Celebes, Ambon,
Bali, Java, West Java (Sundanese), and Sumatra][recorded in Indonesia by
Phil and Florence Walker]

And... recent research in cognition and learning demonstrates the real
risks involved in trying to put into words something that is deeply
embodied as a skill (composition, performance, etc.). This phenomena,
known as verbal overshadowing is a temporary impairment of embodied
perceptual memory processes. See: This makes me
think of Glenn Gould's resistance to answering questions about his
technical approach to playing the piano... he had an intuitive sense
that describing it would not be good thing for his own abilities to
continue to exercise it.

Also... the famous quote that "writing/talking about music is like
dancing about architecture" attributed to a plethora of sources from
Thelonius Monk to Frank Zappa to Elvis Costello to Clara Schumann to
Igor Stravinsky. I've always appreciated the architectural aspects of
a well choreographed dance but also appreciate the intended meaning of
the quote, which points more closely to the specific difficulties in
verbalizing/analyzing an embodied skill such as music
composition/improvisation/performance. Perhaps dancing about music is
a better approach!

Are these the sources of the need, as educators with any sense of
humbleness in the face of the process, to extract our feet from our
mouths on a regular basis? It's difficult to find access to that
Platonic, big composition being played "out there" beyond looking
inside ourselves and accessing memories of not only how others have
solved the problem of the creative process but, indeed, how we
ourselves have confronted the project. This brings us back in an
interesting way to the "playing your own music..." thread.


On 12-Sep-05, at 2:59 PM, Eliot Handelman wrote:

> Pierre Alexandre Tremblay wrote:
>> I don't say that understanding something kills it. I just say there
>> is no relation between composition and analysis: between
>> expression/creation/inner necessity and understanding the inner logic
>> of the language of somebody else. An intuitive general culture (ie,
>> cinema, theatre, museums, dance, etc) is way more useful to a creator
>> than a specific knowledge of a very narrow field of expression. (the
>> language of Mr X. during its 4th creative period)
> Imagine this: there's a kind of Urmusik out there, a sort of heavenly
> platonic master music thing from which all music is derived,
> expressing slight aspects of the whole.
> This sounds very romantic but let's call this Urmusik "human
> possibilities for music," reminding us of Valery's famous
> "que peut un homme."
> Or a little more concrete: there is a special powerful activity some
> animals have, called "music," whose
> specialization is both its limitation -- music can never be more than
> music -- and its infinity -- a brain-specialized music
> computing module able to create entire worlds in sound.
> We can't study the module directly, as yet. But we can initimate its
> nature by examining its best products.
> The aim isn't to know "Mr. X." but rather an image of the neurological
> substrate in which Urmusik resides.
> Many composers of the past were keenly interested in this. Schoenberg
> commented that Brahms, when
> he hit some trouble composing, would reach over to his Beethoven and
> look for an equivalent technical problem. He
> would then absorb "the essence" of the solution, whatever that means.
> Now let';s get more real: anyone with an intuition for music has
> succeeded, at some level, into breaking music
> down into its combinative structures and shapes. I was listening to
> Blue Jay the wunderkind composer who writes
> symphonioes at 10 yrs old. He just hears his music and writes it down.
> I was neverthless aware of many complex
> musical techniques which, thanks to my work in AI, I could name. I
> doubt seriously that BJ names them as well. But
> I know, all the same, that some part of him must have extrapolated
> the "essence" from other music, and this, I think, is what analysis
> really is. It's some aspect of the creative brain.
> It's also very possible that what's referred to as "analysis" by the
> academic music world is
> completely unrelated to whatever it is that the brain does when it
> enjoys a tune. I'm biased: I
> have my own theory about this.
> Successful analysis could means you know something well enough to
> reconstitute it in a new composition, as Katherine
> mentioned in regards l'sle joyeuse."
> We probably all differ in our senses of "what it means to know
> something well."
> In my view the best thing to expect out of a music education today is
> that you exit "knowing
> a few pieces."
> Is this always helpful? I believe it is.
> -- eliot
Kenneth Newby, Assistant Professor
Computational Poetics
School for Interactive Art & Technology
Simon Fraser University

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b27 : Sat Dec 22 2007 - 01:46:10 EST