On David Eagleman’s Incognito: How We Know What We Know

The field of neuroscience is hot these days, and I suspect that it will continue to get hotter still as it explains away more and more of the mysteries of how our minds work.  Case in point: David Eagleman’s recent book Incognito: The Secret Lives Of  The Brain is a whirlwind, high-definition look at the neural underpinnings of our everyday thinking and perception, specifically that substrate known as the unconscious.  For Eagleman, the brain is a remarkable and infinitely powerful thing, and this book tries to explain some of the ways its workings shape our lives.

The brain is not called “dark matter” for nothing either.  Eagleman provides example after example of the gap between our knowledge and our awareness (58), how the brain makes decisions before we’re aware of it, how it’s driven towards “patternicity” (136), how it’s composed of conflicting parts (108), and intriguingly, how it’s influenced by physical realities such as our body posture and facial expressions (134).

I suppose that one of the slightly disconcerting feelings Incognito leaves us with is the sense that we are not, and perhaps never really were, in full control of our cognitive processes.  But this realization reminds us of how awesome our creative machinations really are–everyday stuff like driving a car in traffic or getting a joke, but also in the context of our affinity for abstract or non-representational arts . . . like, say, music.

We “get” music without having to “think” about it, and Eagleman would probably cite this ability as one more example of a seemingly simple skill guided by unconscious processes so complex that they have yet to be successfully modeled by a computer.  Case in point: Have you ever wondered about the geography of your musical tastes?  About how this terrain could possibly be modelled without recourse to the billions points of neural firing that comprise “you”?  It’s this kind of rich perspective that Eagleman opens up again and again in this fascinating book, inviting us to think about how wonderous a technology the brain is.

On Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972: How Do You Know When A Music Is Really Good?

There’s an often unremarked upon aspect of music listening/music appreciation that has to do with how we know when a piece of music is really good.  I’m not talking about the European classical or pop music “classics”–from Mozart concertos to Beatles’ songs (choose your poison!)–that have come our way practically with stickers attached to them announcing their proven historical importance.  No, I’m talking about new left field, under the radar music that’s being made in our time, today, right now.  How do you know when something you’ve never heard before is really good?

One thing ethnomusicology has been telling us for some time is that all music is good music in that it has some kind of meaning for someone, somewhere.  From this culturally relativist viewpoint, it doesn’t matter so much exactly how the music structured, but rather what kind of relationship people have to it.  Musics can become important not just due to their sound, but because so many people ascribe meaning to them.  From this perspective, all music is functional music too.  So sometimes when you find a music to be really good what you’re saying to yourself is that you have found a connection to its way of organizing sound, or a way to find a use for it in your life.

What is the nature of this connection we have to music?  There seems to be something internal going on when listeners encounter a new piece of music, especially on that first hearing.  As we listen to a new piece for the first time, we’re trying to make sense of it in terms of just about everything we’ve ever heard before.  This cognitive process feels like a giant real-time, number-crunching comparative study that lines up the new piece against all that we know about music in general.  Thus, our encounter is always limited by what we know and don’t know already.

This is what I think is happening when I encounter new music, and the idea of a real-time comparative framework occurred to me while listening to Canadian ambient/drone musician Tim Hecker’s recent release, Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky 2010).  Recording live organ and guitar improvisations in a church in Reykjavik, Iceland, and then processing them on a computer, Hecker extends ambient electronic music into deeply layered worlds of long tones, distortion, pulsing fragments of stacked chords, reverb
and drones.

It was when I arrived at track five, a brief piece called “No Drums” that it struck me that this was really good music and while I couldn’t say exactly why this should be the case without simply articulating my musical taste, I felt sure of my judgement.  One thing I do know, though, is that as I listened I kept trying to either predict what would happen next, or else line up what had just sounded with something I had heard somewhere–anywhere–before in my listening history.  The moment of insight was swift: I couldn’t predict what would happen next, nor did the music trigger any specific musical memories.  No, this piece seemed genuinely new, yet familiar and accessible–all in all, and just genuinely really good. Another listener with a different listening history would probably not react the same way I did.  But then, this applies to how we approach Mozart too–comparing his music to everything we’ve ever heard and can remember.

Below is track one, “The Piano Drop” from Hecker’s album.  (I couldn’t find a clip of track five after all that.)  The video, by the way, is real footage of a piano dropped from a height at MIT in 1972.

On Soundscape Listening And Moshing

Last weekend I was in Montreal for the IASPM Canada (International Association For The Study Of Popular Music, Canada) meeting at McGill University where I gave a paper on an iPhone soundscape app called Ambiance.  My research explores how Ambiance users listen to ambient nature sounds for therapeutic purposes–to relax, to relieve stress, to sleep, etc.  Over forty years after R. Murray Schafer began mapping and recording urban and rural soundscapes through his World Soundscape Project, soundscape listening today is not just a niche market: anyone with a smartphone can enhance their sonic environment with the touch of a button.  My paper also considered the meanings of ambient listening:  Is it a kind of blissful tuning out or a mindful tuning in?  And finally, how does technological nature (to borrow a phrase from Peter H. Kahn)–the mediated experience of listening to ocean waves on headphones, for instance–differ from experiencing the real thing?

On my panel were two other presenters who both shared interesting work in progress.  Raphael Nowak explored the different ways iPod users exert agency in their use if the mobile technology.  And Samuel Thulin shared a sound art research project he designed which takes the ambient sounds of a particular place (e.g. a Montreal bus ride on a particular route) and builds a musical work out of the soundscape.  But here’s the catch: the resulting musical work is to be listened to on headphones while the listener is in the very space from which the recorded sounds were derived (in this case, the same bus).  Pretty fascinating conceptually speaking, and just as important, Thulin’s compositions
were beautiful in their hazy, wabi-sabi quality.

A memorable paper at the conference was Christopher Driver’s presentation on the aesthetics of moshing at hardcore music shows in Australia.  (Moshing, in case you don’t know, is a kind of violent body movement/dance where participants slam into one another.)  Christopher played a YouTube clip of a band called Confession performing live, and the clip was striking for the sheer aggressiveness of the music: its frenetic pace, its (one would imagine) immensely loud volume, and the singer’s truly disturbing vocal growl that sounds, well, just really disturbed.  (What kind of vocal processing do they use to get this sound?  A kind of auto-tune tuned to a very low register?  Or is his voice actually like this?)  There aren’t that many shots of the crowd moshing until the end of the clip (if you can make it that far), but you nevertheless get a visceral sense of the tight unity between band and fans engendered by this music.  Anyone doubting the power of musical sound to create a coherent scene need look and listen no further than this video.  If you’re interested, the song here, “She’s Not What She Seems” is actually a kind of breakup song (I looked up the lyrics!):

I spoke with Christopher after my panel and asked him about the connection between moshing and hardcore music.  Many musics have within them aural cues that help dancers orient themselves–downbeats and upbeats, four beat meters, and so on.  But the music of a band like Confession is different in that it pushes the limits of our ability to engage to the point that perhaps flinging ourselves around in a mosh pit is the only reasonable response.  An analysis of the relationship between musical structure and moshing moves would be quite interesting, though probably not easy to pull off.  And finally, hearing the thoughts of those moshers might help us understand how this music has affective power for its listeners.

On The Allure Of The Worn

If you’re a smartphone user, you may have noticed the plethora of apps for your phone that allow you to process the photos you take on it.  Among the most popular apps are FX PhotoStudio and Hipstamatic.  For the average user (that would be most of us), the appeal of these apps is their ability to transform regular, run of the mill digital pics into weathered and vintage-looking ones.  You know the aesthetic: photos in sepia tones, photos that are slightly faded or distressed or washed out or weathered, photos that look like Polaroids from the 1970s or even like hand-drawn charcoal renderings.  Here is the look I am talking about:

In his book Wabi-Sabi (1994/2008), Leonard Koren outlines the aesthetics of the imperfect, the impermanent, and the incomplete via the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi.  Koren describes wabi-sabi as a “fragile aesthetic ideology” and “nature-based aesthetic paradigm” for creating “beautiful things without getting caught up in the dispiriting materialism that usually surrounds such creative acts” (9).  The first recorded instance of the wabi-sabi aesthetic is found in the Japanese tea ceremony circa the fifteenth century.  It was at this time that a Zen monk named Murata Shuko (1423-1502) used locally made and humble utensils in his ceremony, eschewing the “perfect” aesthetic “associated with ownership of elegant foreign-made tea-related objects” (32) that was fashionable at the time.  So, things wabi-sabi, notes Koren, take their cue from nature, foregrounding “raw texture and rough tactile sensation” (68) and often have “a vague, blurry or attenuated quality” (71).  Wabi-sabi would seem the exact opposite of mid- to late-20th century Modernism too.  For Koren, things wabi-sabi reflect a harmonious—if not always ‘pretty’ as conventionally understood—relationship with the rhythms and processes of the natural world and everyday human use:

“Things wabi-sabi are expressions of time frozen.  They are made of materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment.  They record the sun, wind, rain, heat, and cold in a language of discoloration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shriveling, and cracking.  Their nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents, peeing, and other forms of attrition are a testament to histories of use and misuse.  Though things wabi-sabi may be on the point of dematerialization (or materialization)—extremely faint, fragile, or desiccated—they still possess an undiminished poise and strength of character” (62).

I think Koren’s work helps explain the allure of making digital photos look old and beaten up.  It’s as if we know what we’re missing with the digital, and apps like PhotoStudio and Hipstamatic are opportunities to make things look and feel more natural, more wabi-sabi.

And this aesthetic doesn’t just apply in digital photography.  In 21st-century sound recording practice, musicians go to great lengths to make their music sound old, seeking out vintage microphones and analog processing gear to help them on their quest to “warm up” the digital.  There are also software programs such as iZotope’s Trash that allow you to add sonic “dirt” or static to your sound.  It all adds up to a virtual distressing—making the sounds sound a little more like they’ve been lying around for a while, a little more wabi-sabi.

Which gets me wondering about why we fetishize “old”-sounding sound.  Is it because it’s somehow a talisman of realness, of authentic experience?  Take that record static sound, for example.  Static indexes the noise of old records, perhaps culled from an old collection that is itself important in some way to the listener because it represents the past.  And try this thought experiment: recall some very old jazz in your mind’s ear and see if you don’t hear along with the tunes some record static too.

On Techlust: Native Instruments’ Maschine

I’m at Tekserve, in the audio department, and I spot a beauty: Native Instruments’ Maschine, a hardware-software rhythm machine.  I move in for a closer inspection.  Its top is made of metal and I run my fingers across the smooth, cool brushed surface.  I pick up the musical object off the display table and assess its weight: a solid few pounds.  I put it back down and continue exploring.  Its dials are smooth and rotate infinitely, and I so I twist them around and around, imagining what parameters they might control.  Its buttons produce subtle clicks–confident sounds that will surely respond to my touch and help me, one day, switch something on or off in an instant.  And then there are those sixteen beautiful 1.5 inch square rubber pads.  Soft like gummy bears, they’re mini drums that can absorb the impact of an incoming finger, and so I start drumming on them, my fingers playing silent patterns across the four by four grid.  Feels nice.  I pick up Maschine again, rotating it in my hands, and even consider smelling it–after all, I’m sizing up a potential musical mate. (This from someone who regularly smells his Kindle as if it were a paper book!)  What, I’m wondering, might I do with this thing?  Will this be, finally, the instrument that allows me to create fluidly, or will it lure me down a wormhole of complicated procedures that will blunt the creative process?

Maschine is a recent example of electronic music software assuming a physical presence in order to attract musicians. The thinking is that we like tangible things–vibrating strings, membranes, or even smooth moving knobs and smushy rubber pads–with which to interact and make music.  But the fascinating paradox about the tools of electronic music is that as the palette of sound possibilities has increased exponentially with software innovations, the music making process has become increasingly less physical.  There are two ways to think about this.  On the one hand, the shift has encouraged many people without traditional music training to just go ahead and make music.  On the other hand, those of us with training are always looking for a foothold, a link to the physical.  So far, this foothold or link comes in the form of MIDI keyboards and other controllers such as the Akai APC series and the Korg Kaoss touch pads.  Maschine harks back to hardware instruments from the late 1980s and early 1990s such as Akai’s MPC workstations, like the unit in the pic below:

These instruments are still popular with hip hop beat makers who program their patterns like a potter plays with and molds clay: the boxes allow them to feel like they’re getting their hands dirty.  This is a good thing, because our hands often know as much or even more than our minds, and letting our hands play with instruments is a direct route to new ideas.  Maschine is both an attractive piece of hardware and a powerful piece of software, hence its appeal for electronic musicians.  Below is a Native Instruments promotional video for the instrument featuring Jeremy Ellis hammering away on those rubber pads:

Sports On TV As Ambient Sound

In our apartment we “watch” a fair amount of European soccer (that’s real football for you fans of American football).  I put the word “watch” in quotation marks because for me, the games are on as much for their sound as for their visual action.  Don’t get me wrong: watching the games unfold and seeing the physical ballet of the players expand and contract around the strange bouncing attractor that is the bouncing ball is thrilling–especially if you’ve played soccer/football yourself.

But the soundscapes of the games are just as important and have several layers to them.  First, you have the white noise drone of the rabid fans, which occasionally self-organizes itself into massive unison sing-song chants in favor of one team or another.  There are a lot of chants out there (you can find their lyrics online), and I have no idea how everyone knows the songs.  You also have the continuous play-by-play commentary that articulates the dynamics of the players’ movements.  The commentators’ voices have an urgency to them (and there’s always a guy with a thick Scottish accent which ups the ante) and help frame the action on the field.  If you doubt this, try watching a game with the sound off and you’ll hear what I mean (and maybe discover something I’m overlooking): without sound, the game is just as frenetic, but now seems rather pointless and without a specific urgency.

I also watch golf, a sport whose minimal soundscape deserves comment (and maybe defense!).  A fair criticism of anyone who would actually want to watch golf on TV is that so little seems to be happening, and more to the point: it all seems so boring.  But boring is both the appeal of watching/listening to televised golf and just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the deeper psychological dynamics that lie beneath the sport’s smooth surface.

Golf commentators have been justly ridiculed for their habit of whispering intently so as to not distract the golfers huddled over their putts or assessing their next long iron: Why do the commentators whisper when they’re far away from the action, sequestered in glass booths?  But then, the whispering and the general silence on the course (the nature sounds and smatterings of applause notwithstanding) draws the TV viewer/listener inwards–into the minds of the golfers themselves.  Especially if you’ve ever tried hitting a golf ball (let alone hitting it accurately in a repeatable way), the silence of televised golf prompts you to imagine the golfers’ silent thought processes, their visualizing the shot they’re about to make, their anxieties, their elation or frustration upon watching the trajectory of the shot they’ve just hit.  The commentators’ comments and the quiet on the course makes you think about thinking while swinging a club at a small ball while taking aim at a distant target.  No wonder there are so many books about the “inner game” of golf.

If soccer can be viewed/heard as a noisy, communal celebration of teams and energies in motion, then perhaps golf can be viewed/heard as a solo exercise of focus and stasis–quiet meditation in the guise of a game for those players (and viewers at home) who don’t even know they’re in a reflective mode.