Imagine that you’re a bell pattern.
Your name is Timeline.
You were born somewhere in West Africa.
And you sound like this: 3 + 3 + 2.
That’s eight counts long but unevenly divided into two threes and one two.
People like you because your unusual design makes you syncopated, endlessly interesting, and fun to hang out with.
In fact, as a kid you loved to play with dance drumming groups in the village where you grew up.
You hardly ever slept!
You were the little guy who repeated your high-pitched part insistently while the other musicians smiled and played their own angular patterns. Everything meshed together like a finely woven kente cloth that spun itself out and out and out–a communal musical loom.
Since traveling to the Americas centuries ago (itself a long story) your services have been in high demand in all kinds of music, far too numerous to track. But even today everyone wants a part of your designs, your energy, your rhythmic wonder.
You’re a hit machine! Listen to yourself in some pop hits of the moment for instance:
In the guitar part in “Don’t Let Me Down” by The Chainsmokers:
In the keyboard part in “This Is What You Came For” by Calvin Harris:
In the keyboard part in “Cheap Thrills” by Sia:
In the guitar part in “Treat You Better” by Shawn Mendes:
And with little variations (you’re easily bored) in the keyboard part “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” by Mike Posner (Seeb remix):
Well done Timeline. You’re a bell pattern who traveled far.
“Music–good music, great music–had a hard, irreducible purity to it. It might be bitter and despairing and pessimistic, but it could never be cynical.”
“What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves–the music of our being–which is transformed by some into real music.”
-Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time, p. 135.
“They’re definitely open to learning this way. They seem to show a bit more resilience rather than instantly getting fed up, feeling like they’re not musical or talented. It’s proving that you can teach creativity without requiring the skills of years of piano lessons and they’re making something cool.”
“It’s basically a contrast effect induced by filtering the frequency of your tinnitus from the music or sound you’re listening to. This contrast effect is extremely precise and causes nerve cells to reconnect and adapt. The neurological reaction is not only leveraged to treat tinnitus but also stroke patients. Not every single piece of music or sound is suitable for the treatment, though. Audio books, for instance—and speech in general—has a very limited frequency range. Also, classical music can be difficult.”
“Different cultures may use different media to express those base patterns—with different ingredients, for instance, depending on what’s available. But they are, at heart, doing the exact same thing. They are fundamentally playing the same music. And if you can recognize that music, you’ll blow people’s minds with a paradox they can taste: the new and the familiar woven together in a strange loop.”
“What Bach teaches us is the primacy of the musical material, the value of each note and each combination of notes, of each melodic line and each combination of melodic lines. The beauty of Bach inheres as much in the parts as in the whole. Every separate line possesses its own interest, vitality, and autonomy; every moment is capable of standing alone before music’s and Bach’s God. Thus what we learn from Bach is that every note, every player, every musical thought counts.”
“Through their music, the band quickly became reliable purveyors of self-actualized individuality, and in exchange for that feeling, in order to make it more than what it was (a commodity), the band demanded you work for it.”
“We resist evidence suggesting that music can cloud reason, stir rage, cause pain, even kill. Footnoted treatises on the dark side of music are unlikely to sell as well as the cheery pop-science books that tout music’s ability to make us smarter, happier, and more productive. Yet they probably bring us closer to the true function of music in the evolution of human civilization.”
“If you look too closely at the form, you’ll miss the essence.” – Rumi
I recently came across this quote by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi and found it interesting enough to stop and consider it, turn it around things I know. At first it brought to mind architectural objects–I pictured New York skyscrapers, all parallel lines in glass and steel, and then the Rubik’s cube, all colored patterns waiting to be reconfigured. But really it can applied to anything.
The Rumi quote came to mind again as I was listening to a recording of remarkable pianist playing some of his improvised pieces. Some the music’s form I thought I understood: repetitive patterns, both hands moving in rapid parallel gestures up and down the keyboard, totally tonal (e.g. I, II, IV, V, and VI) chords, sustain pedal down, and a general sense of slow change over time. Yet it was the music’s essence that captivated me: how the sounds could conjure what felt like a kind of aura or affect halo around themselves. This aura or affect halo was distinctive too: the essence of this music was a mix of urgency and melancholy–it was as if someone had pressed Play on a mental videotape of years of my memories from all over and now they were spinning around, overlapping. Listening to the music I felt as if I could feel its essence as a kind of mild delirium. I skipped around to some other pieces by the same musician and, like a those comic book exclamatory captions put it–baam!–the essence regenerated itself. Different pieces, same essential essence. How does music do this?
We often grapple with the relationship between musical form and its meaning. This relationship is slippery and difficult to explain because musical materials are not straightforward signifiers and their semantics always open-ended. Thus, over the years writers on music have offered many elegant observations relating to why discussing music is problematic. The depth and affective power of musical action are a function of how music acts as revelation, pointing towards experience “beyond the acoustic” (Robert Fink) without directly representing it. Music is “a language of sonic gesture” (Michel Chanan) “denied referential specificity and cognitive differentiation, but [is] profound in content” (Mikhail Bakhtin) and “a meaningful context which is not bound to a conceptual scheme” (Afred Schutz) that retains “a wide-open semiotic dimension” (Susan McClary and Robert Walser). Music is neither a universal language nor even a language; in its interpretive openness it is more like a sonic Rorschach test whose sense shifts depending on the values we bring to its forms. Music invites us into blurred experience which, like poetry, dissolves meaning and then reveals it on another plane (Anca Rosu). Perhaps this expressive multivalence is what makes music an imaginative Swiss Army Knife for understanding who we are. On a fundamental level it is a perceptual tool for engaging the hidden complexities of our worlds (Alva Noë): music virtually models “the urgencies and the passions of living” (David Burrows), our structures of feeling “as they are actively lived and felt” (Raymond Williams), and “offers a means of thinking relationships” (Richard Middleton). Think and be through me music says, by letting me engage you.
Anyway, back to Rumi. Rumi urges us not to get carried away with the form of a thing or experience lest we miss the essence of it. And so as I was listening to this piano music and thinking about Rumi’s quote, two streams of inquiry merged into questions: What is the relationship between the music’s form and the music’s essence? Does the form produce the essence? Or is essence somehow– almost miraculously–self-generating? Is it possible that the most stimulatingly delirious aspects of musical experience have little or nothing to do with the sounds themselves? If so, where does essence come from? Where does it reside? These questions bring to mind something the percussionist Ken Hyder said in his memoir about drumming and shamanism: “It’s not the music which creates the magic, it’s the magic sitting over, under and all through the music.”
“All ‘realism’ grounded in the confidence of art’s ‘fidelity’ to reality is a conceit of certain technologies.”
– Virginia Heffernan, Magic and Loss, p. 127.
Among the many pleasures of reading Virginia Heffernan’s Magic and Loss, a wildly creative, energized, and forward thinking meditation on the Internet and online experience as a global collaborative artwork, is the author’s observations on the life of music in the digital era. Heffernan notes how the MP3 format tricks the senses into believing “that one slice of data, skimmed off the top, can communicate a sound made in time and space by multiple bodies, collisions, textures, and movements” (194). In other words, digital music–like digital socializing generally (i.e. browsing Facebook)–is and isn’t real. It’s a hyper realistic representation of an experience we are already familiar with from the physical world. Heffernan shares with us her excitement back in the pre-streaming era when iTunes and iPods changed her listening life, enabling her to make playlists of her favorite MP3 tracks for private listening. Then she moves back to macro mode to reflect:
“The music that we hear on mobile devices is not music exactly, but a representation of music, in bits. Like other representational arts–realist painting, journalism, photography, film–MP3 music is an extremely persuasive and pleasurable illusion. The MP3 representation is so seductive, in fact, that we regularly take it for the thing itself. We’re like the mythical birds said to have pecked in vain at Zeuxis’s fifth century BC trompe l’oeil painting of grapes, with their illusion of volume” (181).
Elsewhere in the book I was struck by how Heffernan’s thoughts on reading, writing, and technology might also apply to listening to music. If readers is “another name for moral agents in a world of symbols” (56), perhaps listeners are agents awash in an ocean of sound symbols? If reading is “reverie–and profoundly selfish. It’s play and only play” (75), how too is music listening a cognitive-educational game? If the special pleasure of technology is a function of it being “in productive tension with other technology (83), maybe we can consider musical style in a similar dialectical fashion? And if digitizing written language “restores something…call it mentalness, proximity to pure thought” (85), what has digitizing done to music? How is music adapting to our era’s “profound psychic shift” brought about by technologies like the iPhone? (117).