thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: composition

On The Ergonomics Of Music: Reflections On Flow In Steve Reich’s “Drumming”

“But how the paths sounded to me was deeply linked to how I was making them. There wasn’t one me listening, and another one playing along paths. I listened-in-order-to-make-my-way.”
-David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand (MIT Press 2001, p. 40)

Every once in a while warming up before a show I noodle around by playing a bit of Steve Reich’s Drumming on the marimba. Composed in 1971, Drumming is over an hour of continuous percussion music entirely built on just a few pitches arranged in a constellation of eight beats over twelve pulses. This is the core melo-rhythmic pattern:


As I played Reich’s pattern I thought about what makes it so idiomatic for the drummer’s hands. First, there its short-short-long-long rhythm whose composite sounding has the feel of a three against two polyrhythm. Next, the truncated scale: four notes of a minor one, but without the other three notes that would tell us more about specifics. Finally, Reich’s pattern on these four notes bring my left hand on an out-in-out motor pattern, moving from the g-sharp (out or away from me), up to the b-natural (in or towards me), and then from the b-natural down a semitone to the a-sharp (in to out). Simply put, while the right hand stays perched up on the c-sharp, the left hand motor pattern traverses a small in-out path that flows like crazy!

As I played and enjoyed the flow of the pattern I wondered how it would sound and feel in different keys, so I transposed it downwards one semitone at a time to try it out on eleven other starting pitches. But none of these transpositions felt nearly as natural as playing the pattern on g-sharp. Interesting. In fact, some of the transpositions–starting on b-natural, for instance–were seriously awkward to play. Now I wondered: Would Drumming have worked had it been done in a different key? Had it been tried in different keys? Was motor pattern flow a factor in deciding on its key? (So many questions.)

Playing the core pattern of Drumming had me thinking about some other matters related to composing and playing musical instruments. Had the pathways of this pattern, in this key, on this instrument (and not the tuned bongo drums that are featured in the piece’s opening movement), been the impetus for Drumming? I also reflected on how it is that a piece of music that works so well–that sits so well in the hands–can help define a lexicon of movements that are possible along the terrain of an instrument. If you write music for marimba, it’s difficult to ignore the enduring influence of Reich’s distinctive syncopated patterns on your understanding of the instrument’s idiomatic potentials and expressive sweet spots. Even if you’re just noodling around, warming up before a show by playing bits of Drumming, the fact that the piece continues to sound and feel as good as it does as ergonomic percussion music is enough to make you reflect anew on how closely writing and performing music are connected.

Here is part two of Drumming:

On How Composers Listen To Their Own Work


Having recently finished a project and waiting for it to be mastered, I found myself spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces. I did this listening while doing other things like making toast or tidying up the apartment, and more often than not I listened from another room, letting the sounds move down the hallway and bend around corners so I could take them in from a distance. Why was I listening and what was I trying to notice?

A first reason for listening was to get to know the music. The pieces had been done relatively quickly—quickly enough that prior to finishing the music I had never quite gotten to know it. Over the past few years, my composing has been partly based upon improvisation. (Isn’t all composing at some point improvisation?) This means that I end up reaching for things in one-time performances without fully knowing what it is that I’m reaching for. I just play—trying to make something that seems balanced and enchanting in the moment, or at least not immediately annoying. Later, when I’m editing, I’ll listen to the pieces repeatedly, but since I’ll be focused on the minutiae of fixing little annoying errors, I won’t hear how the pieces flow and won’t understand what it was that I had originally been reaching for. It’s only once the pieces are done (little errors now minimized) that I can begin listening while doing other things and get to know the music in a general way. Now I can hear the performance almost as an outsider would—as if observing it from a distance. This explains why I’ll listen from another room.

I was also listening for something more amorphous: how the music makes me feel, its overall mood, and how it sustains and paces my feeling for the duration of its sounding. Let me re-phrase that: music probably doesn’t make us feel anything—we arrive at feelings with the help of the music. Listening, in other words, is an encounter between the hearer and the sounding. Listening from another room while doing other things is an encounter that helps me gauge how the music inflects those other things I’m doing, as if the sounds are scents, or casting shadows. In a way, I was trying to assess if this music could be actually useful. For instance, could I, or someone else, make toast or fall asleep to this music? I’m happy to report that the answer to both these questions is yes!

A third thing I was listening for was durability: how do these pieces hold up over repeated listenings? How do they wear as I get to know them better? Do some pieces become more annoying, more cloying, the more I listen to them? Do some pieces get better or simply hold their value? Here’s an example: there was one piece in the series—originally the ninth piece, now the fifth—that had always struck me as slightly better than the others. Even though all the pieces were created the same way, each one based upon brief musical improvisations, this particular piece had a weight to it. If it wasn’t better, it at least sounded more assured, almost as if it were a model for the others to aspire to. Maybe I got lucky with it, or maybe, since it was originally the ninth piece in a series of twenty, I had begun to hit my stride with it? In any case, repeated listening did two things: it confirmed my initial positive impression of this model piece, and it confirmed the durability if not of the piece, then at least of that initial positive impression. This was an important realization insofar as there are times when a music seems to change over time simply because my tastes have changed. Funny how that works.

A final reason I was listening was to let go of the music. While I’m working on a project and listening to it over and over, its sounds loom large in my mind’s ear and I often hear bits of the pieces on repeat in my head when I’m least expecting it, as if I’ve created my own earworms. I began this project one year ago, then left it for a time, then came back to it. During that time, the pieces were in the foreground of my attention. But now I need to shift them to the background. I’m done with this music and the fundamental reason I’m spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces from another room while doing other things is to say goodbye to them.

On Composing At 40,000 Feet: Afrojack And The Soaring Economics Of EDM


In a recent New Yorker article, Josh Eells describes the economics of the electronic dance music (EDM) scene in Las Vegas. Here, working at gambling resort clubs, marquee-name DJs (Armin van Buuren, Tiesto, David Guetta, Diplo, Deadmau5, Afrojack, and others) are paid mind-boggling sums to perform their sets for big spending and very drunk audiences. Increasingly, it’s this electronic music and not gambling that draws people to Vegas.

Profiling a Dutch DJ-producer named Afrojack (Nick van de Wall), Eells observes him composing on his laptop while in a hotel room and then on a flight from New York to Vegas. Afrojack uses FL Studio software stocked with “two hundred thousand samples, from synthesizer whooshes to snare hits.” Several passage in Eells’ article are striking in how they capture Afrojack’s working process:

“On his screen, the song…appeared as a series of red and green horizontal bars. Zooming in on a segment representing six seconds of bass, he equalized and compressed the sound to get the timbre he wanted…Nearly an hour later, after replaying the six-second chunk hundreds of times, he took off his headphones. ‘Got it,’ he said.”

And later, on the flight to Vegas:

“The plane was forty thousand feet over western Indiana when he decided he wanted to make a new track. He began with a brisk four-four beat and a repeating phrase that sounded like a theme from a video game. He added string flourishes, whistle sounds, and a shrill, buzzy tone that recalled a fax machine. By the time the plane had entered Nebraska airspace, the song was more or less finished.”

A few interesting things about these passages. First, Afrojack, like many EDM musicians, treats composing as a kind of combinatorial game, choosing from among thousands of sound samples and loops to generate new material. His musical labor lies primarily in listening for striking juxtapositions of already performed and recorded sound bits. Second, he uses his software not only as a vast sound archive from which to draw but also as a mixing board that allows him to shape sound just so. In other words, the software enables him to be an engineer and producer as well as composer. Or more to the point: engineering/producing/sound design becomes part and parcel of the composition process.

Afrojack’s composing at 40,000 feet may also be an apt metaphor for the high-flying, soaring quality of the EDM scene in Vegas. Indeed, Eells’ article concludes with Vegas concert promoters and DJs alike wondering if and when the superstar DJ phenomenon may cool off or vanish altogether. Is this oversized, visceral music–a music intended to move its audiences to momentary excess–sustainable? Or do some bright things eventually fade to a lesser glow?

You can read a critique of Eells’ article at Gawker.

Here is Afrojack’s well-known track, “Take Over Control” (ft. Eva Simons). At 1:24-1:38 (among other places), you can hear his trademark “bleepy” sound:

Finally, here is a Dutch documentary about Afrojack. At 8:38-8:55, the DJ demonstrates his “bleepy” sound. “It’s very weird”, he says about the sound, “and that characterizes my style.”

Notes On “Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes For A Fugue”

“A composition comes as a single gesture which is already, in essence, music. (…) The compositional task is to find the appropriate system for the gesture.” – Arvo Pärt in Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford U. Press,1997), p.201

In the documentary “Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes For A Fugue” there’s a remarkable seven minute scene (10:30-17:02) in which we see the composer explain his thinking about melody and his perception of musical affect. In the scene, Pärt is giving an informal masterclass for young musicians. He’s seated at a digital piano, his giant hands spread over the keyboard. “I’ll show you the beginning” he says, leaning over the keyboard to find the right preset sound. Then he begins to play “Für Alina” (1976), a brief piano solo considered to be Pärt’s first work in what he calls his minimalist “tintinnabuli” style.

“Listen to this voice” Part says as he very slowly and deliberately plays the right hand part. “Quite neutral.” Then Pärt plays the second, lower part with this left hand. “Also neutral” he says, describing its affect as a single melodic line. “Both together” he continues, combining the two hands. The sound is “a bit more serious or complicated. Like two people whose paths seem to cross, and then they don’t.” Part plays the two parts, listening to their blend. “There is some neutrality here.”


What is Pärt referring to when he speaks of “neutrality”? I don’t know. Then the composer changes course. He’s trying to explain to himself and for the students watching him at the keyboard what this piece of music–indeed, what the act of composing music–is fundamentally about. “I’d say that I had a need to…I wouldn’t call it neutrality.” Pärt describes the perceptual focus he’s trying to achieve through his music. As he describes this focus he shifts from one sensory modality to another–from heard sound to seen nature to the perception of time itself:

“A need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.”

“This is actually…It could be like a break on the radio. Such signals sometimes sound as if they lasted an entire life. Or future, or past, outside time. Like I said, a blade of grass has the status of a flower. To see in this tiny phrase, something more than just the black and white key. And further…Hold that note…It’s not the tune that matters so much here. It’s the combination with this triad. It makes such a heart-rending union. The soul yearns to sing it endlessly. Listen…”

To explain how “Für Alina” is more than a matter of its tune, Pärt then compares the design of a composition to the gestures of a conductor which seem to contain the work’s dynamics:

“I imagine the conductor having an upbeat when the whole thing starts. We can’t hear anything yet. And the people in the concert hall don’t know what’s coming. Then the conductor makes the upbeat. The upbeat, the moment when he raises his hand actually contains the formula of the entire work. Its character, dynamics, and plenty of other things.”

For Pärt, the composer is like the conductor in having “knowledge or a perception of what’s coming when the hand goes down.”

He concludes by asking the students where exactly a piece of music begins. Is it the first moment of a sound, or does it start on the upbeat of the conductor’s silent gesture? “What is the first note? And what’s the second one? The first step is everything, decisive. This is a complicated story.”

The students smile.

“I don’t quite understand myself. But I have an idea of what I want to say. I’m always looking for it. Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Every time I feel I have to start from scratch.”

To watch the scene, scroll to 10:30 in this video:

On Finding Cross-Sensory Inspiration: The Spell Of Michel Bras

The Michelin-starred, self-taught French chef Michel Bras may as well be a music composer, such is his multi-sensory approach to his culinary craft. In the ambient and thoughtful documentary Inventing Cuisine: Michel Bras (2008), directed by Paul Lacoste, we see Bras at work on the kitchen–poaching fish, peeling veggies, brooding over his (fascinating) sketchbooks, and generally just looking concerned, lost in thought, and worried about the state of things in his kitchen. But we also see Bras outside in the blowing wind, under overcast skies, finding inspiration in the shifting play of light, wind, rocks, grassy hills, and whatever else he notices in the rugged environment near his restaurant in Laguiole, a remote area in southern France.

In one scene from the documentary (which begins at 4:57 in the YouTube clip below), we find Bras outside observing the sky and landscape through a piece of glass he’s set up on an easel. Like a painter, he’s trying to literally “frame” a piece of his environment by tracing what he sees directly onto what is essentially a translucent canvas. Later, Bras will use his glass tracing as the basis for designing the layout of a new dish on a dinner plate (which we actually saw Bras assembling just before this scene; so much for proper film chronology). “Everyone has their own reading and rewriting [of nature]” says Bras. “The plate is the most difficult part. It’s a sky on a stormy night. The backlit cloud bank captivates me, so maybe I’ll paint it on a plate.”

This scene reminded me of composers finding inspiration (or the idea/ideal that composers find inspiration) in their environments by turning their ears towards say, the rhythmic sound of city traffic and hearing music as with Steve Reich’s City Life (1995)

or maybe noticing the enchanted aura of an old cathedral and imagining out from there as with Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie (1910, performed here by the composer himself in 1913!)

or otherwise paying attention to something else that they want to translate from one medium into another.

And back to cooking, this is what is so fascinating about Bras in this scene: the cross-sensory nature of his creative process. As is the case with someone who experiences synesthesia (experiencing one sensory domain in terms of another–like hearing a chord and seeing the color purple, etc.), Bras is taking in something visual but funneling it through olfactory means: a sight becoming a taste (not to mention a texture, a set of relations and contrasts). It’s all about one of my favorite processes: transformation. And not only does Bras work cross-sensorially to transform elements from one sphere to another, he also gets deeply into the materials of his craft:

“For years, I’ve been interested in the abstract side of things. I get into them, I identify with them. In cooking, I often identify with the ingredient. I try to understand it, become one with it in order to recreate it.”

Finally, like a composer who knows how different rhythms and harmonies will interact to make an enchanting sum greater than its humdrum parts, so too does Bras knows his edible materials well. For instance, he attributes his interest in pastry to the fact that they have a structure that can be altered in a predictable way: “You put in flour, add sugar, you know the outcome.” Bras, then, is a materialist, but like good artists in other fields, he’s a materialist fueled by imagination and the sense(s) to change one kind of matter into another:

“I have a physio-chemical approach to food that helps me enormously. Because I learned on my own it was a real struggle. Today I can sense and predict the transformation process.”

On The Sound Of Epic Achievement And Luxury: A Rolex Soundtrack

While overdosing on Wimbledon 2012 TV coverage over the past few weeks, I noticed a recurring ad for Rolex watches that features Roger Federer. In the 30-second spot the narrator begins by asking “When is greatness achieved?” as we see a montage of Federer’s milestone wins throughout his career interspersed with still shots of him staring into the camera. As one viewer of the ad on YouTube puts it, it’s a pretty epic piece–a great tennis champion plus a great watch. A perfect endorsement too, though in some ways it’s not entirely clear who is endorsing who.

What really makes this Rolex ad epic though, is its music, assembled by Beetroot Music, an English music production company. As music goes, the core of the piece is quite simple, consisting of just three chords over eight measures in the key of f minor, with each chord held for four beats (or one measure of 4/4 time). Here are the chords:

f minor (i chord in f minor)
D-flat major (VI chord, 1st inversion)
C major (V chord, 1st inversion)
f minor (i chord)
D-flat major (VI chord)
C major (v chord, 1st inversion)
f minor (i chord)
f minor (i chord)

The chords are arpeggiated on piano and joined by a pulsating string section. (In older versions of the ad, there is also a booming backbeat–ah, nothing so subtle as classical music with a backbeat!) But as compelling as the spare instrumental arrangement for this 30-second spot is, the ad’s epic quality is primarily signified and suggested through the chords themselves. Let’s take a closer listen.

The first thing to note is that Rolex’s epic sound world is grounded in a minor key–in this case, f minor. Very briefly, in the history of Western concert music going back many hundreds of years, minor keys have long been synonymous with sadness, heaviness, a sense of longing, foreboding, and so on. Basically, a minor key is used to convey the opposite of a major key, which generally speaking is all about happy, brightness, and optimism. Of course, I’m generalizing about the range of meanings inherent in major and minor chords (and meanings are never inherent in anything musical anyway), plus there are a lot of grey areas too. For instance, one can freely mix and match major and minor chords, putting one after another in a sequence called a chord progression. In other words, context is everything in music, and a major chord can sound very differently after a minor chord and vice versa. Also, a simple major or minor chord consists of a triad with three notes–a root note, plus an interval of a third and a fifth above that root. But other intervals can be added on as well, giving major or minor triads very different favors. With added notes, minor is no longer simply sad and major simply happy; the extra tones can make the chords feel emotionally more complex. You can hear this emotional complexity in jazz among many other places.

Having said this, the music in the Rolex commercial doesn’t inhabit any grey areas at all: it’s just straight ahead triads, albeit with a few inversions thrown in to make the chord progression seem more elaborate than it in fact is. So then, the second thing to note about Rolex’s epic sound world besides its use of one minor chord and two major chords in the key of f minor, is its chord progression. Chord progressions have been the basis of Western music–classical as well as popular–for a very long time too. Chord progressions are what create a sense of the music “going somewhere.” The music isn’t actually going anywhere besides traveling through the chords one at a time, of course, but such is the neurological wiring and enculturation of the human imagination that we really feel like the music is taking us on a journey. The Rolex chord progression, while brief, packs a wallop because the i – VI – V – i sequence has such a rich history in our listening lives. We’ve heard it used many, many times without realizing it. It also affects us because the dynamics between its chords are so entrenched in those little movements by one semitone (e.g. the fifth of the i chord moving up to the fifth of VI in 1st inversion, and the third of the V chord moving back to root if the i chord). If you don’t believe me, flip the minor chord to major and the major chords to minor and listen again. I assure you the progression will feel differently.

Perhaps because of its history of heavy use and the dynamics among its major and minor parts, this chord progression continues to speak to us–even when we don’t quite know what is being spoken and how. In fact, the viewer comments on YouTube suggest that Rolex commissioned just the right music to subliminally convey a sense of what the brand is all about: luxury, achievement, precision, pedigree and class. Thus, a viewer named awe4cs asks about the music “Can someone say what’s the name of this ÜBER song?” This sentiment is echoed by others: mrvishal1000 calls the music “epic” and Katherineli notes “There’s so much class in this it’s ridiculous.” Finally, warLock21x speaks of Federer–but perhaps unwittingly too of the 100-year old watch company and the chord progression of the music–as being “of divine descent”.

Here, then, is the commercial:

On Beginnings And Anywheres: A John Cage Aphorism

I see the words on an inspirational magnet in a shop window.

“Begin anywhere”

the late American experimental composer John Cage (1912-1992) tells us.

But what was the point of this telling?

Cage in fact walked the walk of his talk, relying on rolling dice, consulting the Chinese I-Ching book of hexagrams, and even scrutinizing the minute imperfections of music staff paper to define anywhere for him and assist in making the decisions (or free himself from the decision-making) required to construct his music scores.

But again, what was the point of this telling?

A quick and perhaps unreliable Internet search reveals that Cage might have meant his words as advice for those facing the psychological paralysis brought about by not knowing where to begin their project, their work, their book, their art. Perhaps–and now that I think of it, Internet searches themselves can often be exactly like this as well–the problem is having too many options, too many links, which brings about a flawed question to oneself: Where’s the best place to begin (my search, my project, etc.)?

It’s a flawed question because there is no best place to begin. From the standpoint of creative work, all places are good enough and all places are beginnings.

Finally, something else comes to mind when I think about that inspirational magnet. Begin anywhere, certainly, but once begun with whatever it is that you’re doing, be deliberate about your going. Cage walked the walk of his talk in this respect too. Whatever methods he used to help him make musical decisions, once he set up the system, so to speak, he rigorously adhered to it, letting it take him and his compositions somewhere (and these somewheres didn’t always make for engaging listening either). In other words, it takes a great discipline to grant oneself the freedom to begin anywhere and then let that anywhere run its course.

Here is Cage’s “Sonata V” from his Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948) for prepared piano:

On The Musicality Of M.C. Escher

“Order is repetition of units.  Chaos is multiplicity without rhythm.”

“My work is a game, a very serious game.”

“Are you really sure that a floor can’t also be a ceiling?”

– M.C. Escher

I’ve long been curious about M.C. Escher’s (1898-1972) drawings and woodcuts because of their precision, their order and symmetry, their use of repetition and optical illusions, and the way they seem to point towards what could be called the infinite. Lately I’ve been thinking about what these qualities in Escher’s art have to offer those of us working in music (whether making it or writing about it). Let’s take a look.

First, Escher incorporated tessellations into his work, a technique he picked up in his study of tile mosaics while visiting Alhambra, a Moorish palace in Spain in the early 1920s. (Which reminds me of an article on the advanced geometry of 12-century Islamic art.) Seeing the tile mosaics inspired Escher to use geometric grids as the basis for his art as a way of gaining precision. Tessellations, by the way, are the composite result of geometric shapes that are repeated without overlaps or gaps. Honeycombs and interlocking pavement tiles are examples of tessellations. We see tessellations in Escher works such as these:

Second, Escher depicted in his work transformation/transmutations where we see one shape becoming another. These transformations appear most clearly in Escher’s tessellation pieces. In his woodcut Sky and Water, for example, we see birds becoming fish/fish becoming birds.

Or in this piece, Day and Night, a whole landscape shifting:

Third, Escher was fascinated by so-called “impossible constructions” or visual illusions such as the Necker cube and the Penrose triangle that take advantage of quirks of perception and perspective. You can see impossible constructions depicted in Escher’s famous “Relativity” piece that depicts people simultaneously ascending and descending stairs in an infinite loop. Are the figures moving up or down, sideways this way or that way? I like to rotate this piece onto its different sides to see how it holds up. Miraculously, Escher makes the work cohere no matter what viewing perspective we try to bring to it:

Fourth, and speaking of infinite loops, Escher’s works illustrate the idea of recursiveness—that is, something feeding back upon itself in a never-ending cycle. Relativity, above, depicts such infinite loops, as does the work Drawing Hands:

And this one that depicts lizards crawling to life/becoming tessellations:

These works and others present the viewer with a visual chicken/egg dilemma: Where does it all start and end? I like that.

Fifth, it’s been said that Escher’s art demonstrated an “intuitive” understanding of mathematical order and symmetry and perhaps this is the reason why his works are so pleasing to look at? What’s remarkable is that this intuitive understanding was so accurate that in the late 1950s the Canadian mathematician H.S.M. Coxeter said of Escher’s hyperbolic tessellations (regular tilings of a hyperbolic plane): “Escher got it absolutely right to the millimeter.” Here is his Circle Limit III:

This notion of Escher’s intuitive mathematical understanding reminds me of a quote from the philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Lebniz (1646-1716) that always made intuitive sense to me: “Music is a hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul, which does not know that it is counting.”

Finally, there’s an intangible quality to Escher’s work that some critics have described as an interest in exploring infinity. The repetition, the tessellations depicting nature’s transformations and evolution, the impossible constructions playing with our perceptions, the infinite loops feeding back upon themselves—all of these characteristics of Escher’s art suggest an artist trying to represent that which can’t be represented, a reality beyond, a time-space outside our everyday experience of space-time. You even see it in tiny details, like when Escher draws a reflection of himself. In his work The Eye, for example, the reflection is twofold: there’s the mirror-image close up of his face where we see the folds around his eye, and there’s also that next level reflection deep in his eye’s pupil where we see Escher post-Escher–he’s already a corpse! It’s these kinds of little details that suggest that Escher was always somehow thinking beyond the Now even as he had intricate, and serious fun (“My work is a game, a very serious game”) constructing its beguiling representations:


For me, Escher’s work has musical resonances and looking at his pieces reminds me of the work of various composers, especially that of the American minimalists such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Over the years I’ve spent much time thinking through their work (you can read more about their work here; and you can view a Ventrilo-Dialogue with Reich here). Escher’s tessellations remind me of minimalist music that is similarly built out of small repeating units of sound strung together to make long rhythmic tapestries. (Now that I think of it, a lot of electronic dance music fits this bill as well.) Escher’s transformations/transmutations remind me of how minimalist music changes over time through subtle additive or subtractive procedures—adding or taking away a note here and there to transform one motive into another before our ears. (Ditto for electronic dance music.) And Escher’s impossible constructions remind me of minimal music’s perceptual artifacts—where as a listener you’re not sure if you’re listening to three groups of four beats or four groups of three beats, for example. Like Escher’s Relativity, a piece like Reich’s Drumming allows the listener to hear both perspectives at once. As for recursiveness, a lot of classic minimal music really does have an endless quality about it: a sense that it could, and just might, go on forever—or at least long enough for the listener to stop worrying about where it’s “going.” (It’s not going anywhere, just being something for a time.) Finally, to return to Escher’s intuitive understanding of math: Aren’t composers kinds of mathematicians too in that in one way or another they’re concerned with numbers and quantity, structure, space, and change? Like Escher, most composers frame what they do not in clinical terms (“I spend a lot of time exploring e-minor…” or “I do most of my compositional work in 5/4 time…”) but in intuitive and emotional terms (“In this song I was trying to capture the sadness of my break-up with a girlfriend…”)  And isn’t music a good example of a kind of equation in sound that presents not an argument or a “proof” but rather shares the results of a procedure, solving itself and bringing us along for the ride?

Sound Decisions: On Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”

“Instinct puts us in the moment, intellect is slower.” – Robert Fripp

“The proof that you truly understand a pattern of behavior is that you know how to reverse it.” – Daniel Kahneman

Sometimes while working on writing new music I’ve noticed how I oscillate between two frames of mind. One frame feels spontaneous and intuitive. Within this frame I work quickly to put sounds together guided by what feels like nothing other than the task at hand. Typical thoughts: “Oh, that sounds cool! Do more of that! Do it again!” (And again!) When I’m in this frame the work feels easy and unencumbered; I’m confident in knowing what sounds “right” and proceed accordingly. The other frame of mind feels more encumbered. Within this frame I’m deliberate and cautious, working slowly and always wanting to “weigh the options” and get a bird’s-eye view of how everything works and connects. Within this frame I want to know where we’re going before we get there rather than just being thrilled by the ride itself.

I worked for many years with a vague awareness of these two frames of mind. But all that changed recently when I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a comprehensive dissection of our patterns of intuitive and deliberate thinking and the tendencies of each. Kahneman is a an Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel Laureate with expertise on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. According to Kahneman, human thinking can be characterized in terms of two types. To help the reader get a sense of their differences, Kahneman refers to these types of thinking as System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is the intuitive type. It is by definition impulsive, jumping to conclusions based in limited evidence. System 1 generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations; and when “endorsed by System 2 these become beliefs, attitudes, and intentions” (105). System 2, on the other hand, is the deliberate type. It is by definition cautious and capable of reasoning (48), and also somewhat lazy in that it needs to be kick-started into action. No matter what we think we may believe about how we think, Systems 1 and 2 are always engaged to various degrees, as well as in conflict–battling it out for our attention and engagement.

But most of the time, it’s System 1 that steals the show due to its quick reaction time and sureness in its judgements. Consider a musical example. Let’s say you hear a particular chord progression and you just can’t help feeling a particular feeling comprised of a series of emotional associations. It’s as if the music made you feel a particular way, and darn it, this is what the music means. It’s obvious! Your emotional reaction to the chord progression is what Kahneman might call “associative activation” and pure System 1 at work: “ideas that have been evoked trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain” (51). This cascade of associations is just one of the many reasons why System 1’s workings can feel so right and intuitive. By contrast, to get a sense of System 2 at work consider being asked to multiply 24 times 17. System 1 is of little use here (and anyway, it’s doubtful much in the way of particular emotions will cascade out of this task). You need to slow down and deliberately work through the problem to solve it. This slow-moving deliberateness is the strength of System 2.

The main theme of Thinking, Fast and Slow is that we should be very skeptical of our intuitions and not let ourselves believe whatever comes to our minds (153). This is difficult to do because “following our intuitions is more natural, and somehow more pleasant, than acting against them” (194). Moreover, intuition is unreliable because it’s susceptible to all manner if influence, including what psychologists call “priming”–an idea presented to us in a subtle or not so subtle way that influences our actions. There are dozens of case studies in Thinking, Fast and Slow that illustrate the shortcomings of System 1 intuitive thinking, including discussions of narrative fallacy (how creating a flawed story about ourselves in the past shapes the illusion that we understand our future), how we exaggerate the coherence of what we hear, focusing illusions (our tendency to overstate the impact of certain circumstances on which we focus our attention), cognitive illusions (such as the illusion of the “hot hand” in basketball), the dangers of confidence and optimism (!), the strengths of using algorithms to guide decision-making, the limitations of the “insider’s view”, the folly of risk-management and forecasting, theory-induced blindness, the power of loss aversion, the sunk-cost fallacy, how memories can be wrong, how to spot cognitive minefields–and on and on. In this exceptionally rigorous book the detailed case studies are many and the evidence solid. As rational beings, we are hard-wired for error, “prone to exaggerate the consistency and coherence” of what we experience (114). To make matters even more sobering, it’s difficult for us to truly change ourselves, to re-set how we see the world and our place in it. We have, says Kahneman in a phrase that sums up well our predicament, an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance” (201).


So what has this to do with me making music? Well, as I sit at the computer working on a project, Kahneman’s book has me imagining the dialog between my Systems 1 and 2 and how my System 2 thought processes have been helpful to the project’s progress. I began over a year ago, working willy-nilly on five different tracks that were related in that they all use audio samples of the same earlier work of mine. There were some convincing moments on each of the five pieces-in-progress, but the material was all over the place. 

What I now think of as System 2 demanded some overriding order, so I started to boil the pieces down to just a few sounds and made sure each piece had exactly the same sound palette. While this decision to boil the pieces down felt arbitrary–for how could I ever decide on the sounds when there are so many interesting ones out there?–it also seemed, practically speaking, necessary. And shockingly to me, the boiling down process took several months of arguing with what I now think of as System 1 which always just wanted to get down with playing and having fun. (“System 2, Why do we have to be so organized?”) But System 2 insisted on the constraints, knowing that without them System 1 would flounder and I’d get frustrated–like an archer without a target. Finally, with the sound palette and an overall direction in place courtesy of System 2, I could get back to playing, attending to the (fun) details of building patterns, linking parts, editing, and assembling structures until they sound right.

There remain some uncertainties about this work-in-progress, especially concerning the qualities that can make the music hum when they’re in place but drag when they’re missing. In other words, I’m not sure the music will work until . . . it does or doesn’t. But what I learned from Thinking, Fast and Slow is that questioning one’s intuitions with slow, big picture deliberation (quick–24 times 17!) can ultimately be energizing. It certainly helped me get around what felt like a block with no clear cause besides the unreasonable expectation that intuition is the solution to all musical problems. At the computer, I still work in spurts of what feels like System 1 intuitive forward momentum, and I still don’t quite know where I’m going or how exactly I have come to know what I know. But that’s okay, because I proceed with a confidence born from realizing that uncertainty is part of the musical game and I can still make sound decisions in the face of it.

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation With Arvo Pärt

Chant: “(Advocatam) Llibre Vermell de Montserrat”

Arvo Pärt: “Da Pacem Domine”

Arvo Pärt: “Mein Weg”

Aphex Twin: “Rhubarb”

(Note: If you are looking for further musical juxtapositions, press play on the chant clip and when it arrives at 0:05 press play on the first Pärt clip [and turn up its volume slightly] and listen to the mix.)


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