On Olivier Messiaen’s Astonishing Chords

“It is…the denial of forward-moving time that is the generative and fundamental substance of Messiaen’s music: the matter of his verbal commentaries is no more than an explanation of the music…and conducted in terms other than those of the music.”
– Paul Griffiths, Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time (1985, p. 17)


Curating The Week: Lullabies, Music And The Brain, And Young Versus Old People Listening


1. An article about lullabies.

“What, really, is a lullaby? We can define it functionally — a song used to lull a child to sleep. In this sense, the distinctive burden of a lullaby is to be interesting enough to capture a child’s attention, but not interesting enough to keep the child awake, which is perhaps why most of the songs we think of as lullabies have a 6/8 meter and are confined to about five notes.”

2. A video about how playing music is good for your brain.

“Playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full body workout.”

3. An article about how young and old people listen to music for different reasons.

“While some younger participants did refer to music’s ability to provide them with a private ‘personal space,’ the bulk of the responses suggest older people are more interested in music as an intense, inner experience, while younger ones view it as a way of escaping bad moods and connecting with friends.”


Synesthetic Vibrations

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It was as if the music
knew of my buried memory.
It was a picture torn
thirty years past
from a travel magazine,
of, maybe, a schoolyard in France–
autumn, games played,
blurred figures in motion,
reverberating laughter,
a country scene.

The music was a few notes torn
from a longer piece
of, maybe, music for piano or harp–
autumn, counterpoint,
crisscrossing tones in motion,
chords in resonance,

I tore the picture
because it created a feeling
beyond the frame of its subject,
beyond the lines of its materials,
seeming to suggest a memory
that would one day find its music
and only now did I hear the soundtrack.

Where Old Music Lives

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Some old music
lives in scores
and performance practice–
picture a string quartet rehearsing,
eyes facing black dots on the pages,
one musician leaning in
to make an annotation in pencil,
almost touching the composer’s notes
that combine to make the music
so touching.

Other old music
lives in speakers
and Muzak soundtracks–
picture yourself walking
around a drugstore at night
under the neon lights
looking for earplugs and seltzer,
turning down the card aisle,
only to stop and look
towards the ceiling.
It’s a John Cougar song
beaming downwards from the 80s
that hurts so good to listen to again
but sounds distant now,
and as you pay for your products
with a swipe of a card
and ears tracking the tune
all you can think about is old music
still living on as alienated labor,
earning money while you spend it.

Curating The Week: BBC Radio Documentaries On Music, Alva Noë On Art, And An Article About The Pop Music Industry


1. A fascinating series of BBC radio documentaries about all aspects of musical experience. Here is quote from the program “Playing With Patterns”:

“Our brain is responding to that tension between recognizing a pattern at work, but not a pattern that is so simple that we can predict what will happen next…In each piece [Bach] provides musical seeds and a mathematical rule for expanding these seeds…With all these mathematical algorithms at work, one could quite legitimately declare Bach the first coder.”

2. An article by philosopher Alva Noë about what art does. (Based on his new book Strange Tools: Art And Human Nature.)

“A work of art is a strange tool. It is an alien implement that affords us the opportunity to bring into view everything that was hidden in the background…Art is itself a research practice, a way of investigating the world and ourselves. Art displays us to ourselves, and in a way makes us anew, by disrupting our habitual activities of doing and making.”

3. An article about the songwriters driving the modern pop music industry. (Based on the new book by John Seabrook, The Song Machine.)

“The music is manufactured to fill not headphones and home stereo systems but malls and football stadiums. It is a synthetic, mechanical sound ‘more captivating than the virtuosity of the musicians.’ This is a metaphor, of course—there are no musicians anymore, at least not human ones. Every instrument is automated. Session musicians have gone extinct, and studio mixing boards remain only as retro, semi-ironic furniture.”

Reading Analogically: Notes On Western Logic And Eastern Dialecticism In Richard Nisbett’s “Mindware”


In one of the more fascinating sections of Richard Nisbett’s gripping book Mindware, there is a comparison between the principles of Western logic versus those of Eastern dialecticism. As I read through the comparison I thought about how these different mindsets might manifest themselves in musical contexts. Let’s take a look.

Three principles underlie the foundations of Western logical thought. The first principle has to do with the singularity of identity. “A = A…A is itself and not some other thing.” The second principle is that of noncontradiction. “A and not A can’t both be the case.” The third principle is that of the excluded middle. “Everything must either be or not be.” Something in between being and not being can’t be true. Similarly, three principles underlie the stance of Eastern dialecticism. First is the principle that reality is change: “What is currently true will shortly be false.” The second principle is that contradiction underlies change: “Because change is constant, contradiction is constant.” And the third principle concerns holism: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Parts are meaningful only in relation to the whole.”

Reading these contrasting worldviews it strikes me how inherently musical the Eastern dialectical perspective is. When you think about it, music is continual change and contradiction (or “contrast” in music speak) whose parts cohere in a way that makes them more than a bunch of sounds simply sounding together. The meaning of a sound is always in relation to another sound. Take a triad for example:


You can hear each of its three pitches (root, third, and fifth) individually yet together they melt into something more. Even on this elementary level music is the ultimate gestalt art form.

Stringing chords such as triads together into a sequence can produce beautiful flows of continual change. Consider a Bach chorale:

The principles of Western logic evoke different associations in that they remind me of some of the rigidities of Western music. Take tempered tuning. We not only say that the frequency of 440hz (hertz is the measurement for vibrations per second) is the note “A” but also that if we deviate a few Hertz up or down from that number the A is out of tune. In other words, a pitch can’t be in tune and out of tune–or to use Nisbett’s formulation, A literally speaking can’t be both itself and some other thing at the same time. In Western music our sense of pitch and melody is constrained to twelve fixed tones (the seven white notes and five black notes on the piano) and anything in between these fixities is a “blue” note, out of tune, left out, unsounded, ignored, or just wrong.

I leave you with two further examples, one Western, the other Eastern. My point is not to illustrate Western logic versus Eastern dialecticism by mapping them onto Western and Eastern music but rather to simply demonstrate how deeply different our world’s musics can be. The first example is another piece by Bach–his brief Prelude in C Minor from the Well Tempered Clavier. I love this piece, partly because I can actually play it and also because of how it moves. The music drives forward, changing just a note or two each measure to create shifting harmonies. Its rhythm is built from steady 16th notes and the overall feeling is one of determination, of trying to reach a goal.

The second piece is a traditional composition for the Qin, a Chinese zither. “Wild Geese Descending On The Sandbank” dates from the seventeenth century and the notation for the music indicates both the notes and inflections for pitch bends and other effects outside the pitch domain. There is a lot of space in the time of this music which has the effect of spurring the imagination. The overall feeling of the piece is one of stasis.

We might say that the musics in these two examples are dialectics with their own logics. Each involves change too, just in different ways towards different ends.

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation Between Expression And Experiment

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Expression: I make music to express my feelings, my emotions.

Experiment: I make music to create feelings and emotions.

Expression: I feel a connection between the sounds and how I feel inside.

Experiment: I notice a connection between my process and the sounds.

Expression: There’s a story to my music.

Experiment: Story is something we overlay onto the music. Music isn’t about anything.

Expression: The rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and timbres are like characters.
They do things and they go places.

Experiment: They do things and go places, I agree. But they are variable parameters and values, not characters.

Expression: You make music sound soulless, like scientific research.

Experiment: Well, you make it sound like an ego trip.

Expression: I lose myself in my music all the time, so I doubt that my ego is involved.

Experiment: But you refer to the music as yours. That assumes a lot–like an owning ego.

Expression: You don’t feel you own the music you make?

Experiment: No. I get excited by it sometimes, but can’t take much credit for its making.

Expression: So who or what takes credit for making the music?

Experiment: The process does.

Expression: Which is what exactly?

Experiment: Sometimes the process is my improvisations at an instrument.
Other times it’s the ways I manipulate and edit the sound.

Expression: How can you not take credit for improvising, manipulation, and editing?
Surely those are all processes that require musical skill or a sense of what is musical?

Experiment: I don’t take credit for them because I’m not trying to express anything. I’m just tinkering around, trying things out. It’s simple stuff. Anyone could do it. My contribution is paying attention.

Expression: You make it sound like play, or an experiment.

Experiment: Yes! Music is a playful experiment in paying attention. I like that formulation. What is it for you?

Expression: For me music is a way of coping with my life, a way of saying things I couldn’t say otherwise.
Music is an encounter with mystery that articulates in a thousand shades of subtlety.

Experiment: I agree with that last bit. So what kinds of music do you like?

Expression: I like all kinds of stuff–anything that connects with a lot of people–like rock and pop, and also Romantic classical music. Anything that has soul and give me goosebumps. You?

Experiment: I’m not sure what you mean by soul…But I like instrumental music–nothing with voices at all, though I make an exception for Arvo Part. J.S. Bach’s keyboard stuff is great. Some Indian instrumental music. I like random wind chimes blowing in the wind. I also listen to electronic music. Autechre are good.

Expression: It sounds like you don’t really like that much music or like music that much?

Experiment: Probably you’re right. There’s too much noise and spectacle in how music goes about its business. Silence is often more interesting for me because…it allows me space to think. Music co-opts my thinking, leaving so little room for anything else and that annoys me. Anyway, how much favorite music does one need?

Expression: The more the better! I think you’re missing out on the kaleidoscope of human expression through sound–the chaos, the buzz, the grit, the highs and lows.

Experiment: The less the better! I think you’re missing out on the clarity of simplicity.

Expression: Perhaps. At least we agree that music is always worthy of our attention, right?

Experiment: Absolutely.

Expression: Music is pure expression, giving wings to the mind and flight to the imagination. (Plato)

Experiment: Music is pure experiment, a hypothesis that works for a while. (Burrows)


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