“Music is an adjectival experience.”
-Simon Frith (Performing Rites, p. 263)
The mood of Canadian organist and composer Kara-Lis Coverdale’s “Ad_renaline” is optimistic, though tinged with mystery too. The music is made up of layers of organ (organ-ish?) sounds and voices. We hear three pulsing staccato chords of uneven counts repeating a two measure phrase, with echoing and swirling counter lines floating high above, answering and filling in the texture, low and slow bass tones stretching things out below, and a choir of female voices (the composer herself?) singing four melancholy descending notes. Like ice cubes melting, the layers of organ and voices soon dissolve into transparent traces of their former state, leaving us at the end of this inspiring piece with just a sketch of that original pulsation.
“This process, known as phase synchronization, was first observed in pendulum clocks in 1657 by Christian Huygens. It has since been found in systems ranging from thermoacoustic engines in the lab to the rhythmic blinking of fireflies in nature.”
“In order to convert images to sound, he breaks down paintings in thousands of cubic particles, which he then associates with sound frequencies based on the warmth and intensity of the tone. The warmer tones correspond to high frequencies that go up to 800 Hz, while the cooler tones dip to low frequencies, around 50 Hz.”
“Your brain reflects the way that you think throughout your life. You kind of shape it by your thoughts and your behaviors. If you play violin for eight hours a day, then the parts of the brain responsible for helping you to play the violin will get larger. If you’re thinking stressful thoughts for the whole day then those parts of the brain are going to get larger and other parts of the brain will deteriorate.”
Edward Hopper’s most iconic painting depicts several people in a city diner late at night. As with much of Hopper’s work, the mood of the scene is desolate, empty. The people seem more like concepts than characters, their individual life stories forever hidden from our view. In the Hopperian world, time itself is frozen.
DJ Richard, originally from the coastal town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island (which, by the way, is not far from the Cape Cod settings depicted in many of Hopper’s other paintings) makes a kind of techno that evokes its own kind of desolate night scene. There are just a few sounds in Richard’s “Nighthawk”–a three-note pulsating chordal drone, some hints of low bass, and a repeating single note melody. The star of the texture is the percussion–a syncopated, jagged weave of synthetic Roland TR-909-esque kick drum, snare drum rim click, handclaps, and hi hat cymbals sounds–none of which articulate the conventional four-on-the-floor beat.
This is where the juxtaposition between Richard’s music and Hopper’s painting begins to come into focus, bridging the seventy-four year gap between them. It’s not just the outward or surface mood of loneliness that these two works share. Underneath both of them is also a deep sense of absence. In “Nighthawk” Richard’s percussion play what sounds like a continuous drum fill whose tensions never resolve themselves, suggesting the pulse of the underlying 4/4 beat without ever playing it. The drone, the bass, and single melody note do nothing to resolve the music’s rhythmic tensions. As we listen we’re held suspended, waiting for something that never arrives. Similarly, in Hopper’s “Nighthawks” we feel the palpable silence of what is about to unfold but never does–in the uncertain back stories of the characters in the diner, but also in the details around the painting’s focal point such as the street intersection, the buildings in the background, and indeed, in the perspective afforded by Hopper’s point of view. He has set us up to look in on the scene–to know things the characters in the scene do not. All this raises questions: When assessing a famous painting or piece of music what do we know and how do we come by our knowing? How does seeing shape how we listen, and listening shape what we see?
I have an article in The Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality (2016), edited by the late Sheila Whiteley and Shara Rambarran. The book’s thirty-one chapters, write the editors, examine “the intersections, mutations, and transmigrations of the virtual and the real” by offering “a kaleidoscope of interdisciplinary perspectives from scholars around the globe on the way in which virtuality mediates the dissemination, acquisition, performance, creation, and reimagining of music.” My article “From Environmental Sound To Virtual Environment Enhancing” explores the history, design, uses, and social meanings of Ambiance, a popular soundscape app.
You can read more about the book here.
Imagine you’re an attentive bird.
You love flying because flying is what you do—it’s what you’re designed for.
You’re soaring high above a landscape—riding the air currents, maybe somewhere in rural England, or Western Canada.
You look down and notice the rolling hills, a stream that flows through them, and just off in the distance, a small forest.
You decide to take a closer look at it all so you swoop downwards—swoosh!—quickly and effortlessly descending from a height of several hundred feet to about twenty.
Now you’re in the thick of it.
Here you can see the texture of everything; you can smell the grass on the hills; you can feel the chill of the water and hear its gurgling sound.
Following the stream you notice a few humans standing along its banks, gesturing and talking and acting like they own the place. Under the flowing water you also spot fish moving quicksilver, steady and silent.
It’s all so perfect.
You keep gliding above the stream until it leads you to the edge of the small forest.
From above, the forest looked like a dense dark green patch, but here close to the ground all you see is its trees.
So many trees!
Angling your wings from side to side—you do this intuitively—you slip into the forest, darting in and around and up and over those trees, taking in their complex arrangement of space and the density of their canopy.
There’s so much going on in the thicket, so many levels of information that you could easily get lost.
Maybe you are lost. It’s chaotic but makes sense when you’re in it.
After a few minutes you make an abrupt upward turn and shoot towards an opening to the sky.
You climb and climb, riding the currents in a straight vertical ascent. Thrilling!
Higher and higher you go for the great view—the perspective—that it affords.
Once again above forest, now super high in the sky, you careen back towards direction from which you came.
Everything below looks tiny again.
You see the stream and how it flows through the rolling green hills, but you no longer feel the cold of the water.
You see the hills and the forest receding in the distance but no longer sense their complexities.
The humans standing on the banks are just little specks. They’re still gesturing and talking though.
You have perspective now—you can take in at a glance the order of things—because this is what you, an attentive bird, this is what you do.
You began high up, flew down below, then returned to a distance.
Someday you might remember the details of what you felt when you got close to everything–
a trace of what you noticed about those hills, the stream, or that forest will come back to you.
This is how writing is like flying.
“Composed Music’s primary virtue is its blunt veracity. It is what it says it is: works by a singular mind, fixed and promulgated in written form. When you think about it, that is probably the one and only thing that unites all eras and styles of so-called Classical Music. Composed Music covers everybody and every work we’ve ever described as Classical Music, plus anything written in the 20th and 21st century, right up through right now, without privileging any era or style.”
“The sound is as important as the surface and the feel. It’s important because our ears define for me the nature of space.”
“Constant noise is upending the way whales and dolphins hunt, navigate, and form social bonds. Imagine trying to converse with a friend—or even think straight—while the subway train passes by.”
• An article about the power of spaced repetition as a study/memory technique. (The article cites research from here.)
“Spaced repetition is simple, but highly effective because it deliberately hacks the way your brain works. It forces learning to be effortful, and like muscles, the brain responds to that stimulus by strengthening the connections between nerve cells. By spacing the intervals out, you’re further exercising these connections each time.”
Music from my 1997 recording Wonders, scored for marimbas and vibraphones.