On Embracing The (Repetitious) Mundane: Two Works By Jean-Philippe Toussaint

I recently discovered some short novels by French novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint. In his books Monsieur (1986) and Television (1997), Toussaint explores with whimsical yet clinical detail the dynamics of repetition–along with the virtues of doing very little to get by in life so that its textures and contours are revealed to us.

In Monsieur, our otherwise unnamed protagonist is a case study in what Toussaint calls “bone idleness.”  We follow Monsieur as he goes through the motions of everyday life–going to his “executive” office job (where it’s not at all clear what it is exactly that he does), socializing, playing ping-pong with his nephew–all while going to great lengths to exert himself as little as possible.  He hides, he escapes, he tries to blend in, he strives to be invisible.  As a result of these strategies, time slows down or at least seems purified, and living becomes light as Monsieur glides through his days, savoring whatever he happens to be doing right here, right now.  Monsieur, both the book and its protagonist, is a quiet celebration of the neutral and the mundane: taking it easy while maintaining acute awareness.

Television treads on similar territory, only this time the protagonist is a French academic who has given up his TV habit and moved to Berlin for the summer to do research for a monograph.  But the micro-rhythms of everyday life soon consume him and he gives in to procrastination, making his many leisure pursuits–from sunbathing to sitting in cafes to swimming–the main event.  He also keeps finding television’s ghostly, flickering presence wherever he goes.

In both of these books there’s an almost ethnographic attention paid to the textured minutiae of humdrum lived experience: how things and activities look and sound, smell and feel.  Unlike most novels, the “action” in these stories  is really not the point.  Instead, Toussaint engages readers in sufficient detail that we forget all about the need for the narrative to “go” somewhere.  The message?  If managed and attended to just right, humdrum experience can blossom with insight and small, easily overlooked revelation.

On The Neuroscience Of Magic And The Magic Of Aural Illusions In Music

In their engaging book Sleights Of Mind, Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde explore the neurobiology of attention in the context of the magician’s art.  They argue that illusions, slights of hand and other tricks have much to offer the study of how we think because magicians specialize in playing with our perceptions and (mis)guiding our attention.  Magic manipulates the reality of our here and now (242) and even “the nature of our conscious experience” (255).  For instance, our visual systems have a spotlight of attention beyond which we are almost blind.  Magicians capitalize on this by directing what we see in controlled ways, creating “frames” or windows of space to localize where and what we attend to (66).  Magic works its wonders over and over again by hacking into and manipulating our awareness and understanding of how we think the world should work.  Simply put, a magic trick succeeds when it manages to violate our expectations (159).

Magicians are not the first artistic community to have made important discoveries about our cognitive processes.  European painters in the 15th-century discovered the rules of perspective so that–presto!–paintings quickly moved from looking flat and oddly proportioned like this

to having a depth of field like this

and much more recently, toying with our sense of perception through impossible figures like this

What kinds of discoveries have music composers and performers made over the centuries?  After all, music, like magic, is also an art of holding the listener’s attention and awareness through time.  (Music may well be, as a friend once said to me, one of the provinces of magic.)  So what about aural illusions in music?  How does music create phantom presences out of such seemingly simple sonic materials?  Is it fair to say that music is an elaborate art of aural illusionry?

There are certainly many musics around the world that make use of different kinds of aural illusions to achieve their affect.  A few examples come to mind.  Consider, for instance, akadinda music from Uganda.  The akadinda is a large wooden xylophone played by several musicians at once.  The music consists of very fast interlocking patterns that whiz by at upwards of 300 beats per minute.  But what’s even more remarkable about this music is that its rapid-fire textures give rise to an auditory illusion called “inherent patterns.” First described by ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik about fifty years ago (Kubik has spent much of his life in the field studying and documenting music making in Sub-Saharan Africa), inherent patterns are resultant or composite melodic or rhythmic patterns that seem to (magically) rise to the surface of what is otherwise just a very dense musical texture.  Inherent patterns can be considered perceptual artifacts–patterns that arrive at our senses because they seem inherent or embedded in what we’re hearing.  In the case of akadinda music, if you listen through the fast interlocking rhythms you can sometimes hear a simple two note melody that no single musician is playing on their own.  Rather, the melody is the sum of several sets of hands playing adjacent akadinda keys.  Your brain notices this inherent melody because the fast interlocking pattern repeats insistently to the point that your brain can focus in and detect it.

Inherent melodies can be heard in other African musical traditions as well, such as mbira music from Zimbabwe.  In mbira music, you’ll sometimes hear performers sing along with the inherent patterns as they perceive them in the music they’re playing.  And the American composer Steve Reich has written numerous pieces (such as Drumming) that exploit this perceptual phenomenon as well.

Another musical example that taps our propensity for noticing sounds beyond sounds is throat singing from Tuva and Mongolia.  Skilled throat singers from these regions have evolved techniques that involve constricting their throats and shaping their lips in such a way that they can produce not one but two pitches at once.  The low-pitched droning note is called a fundamental and the higher pitched note an overtone or harmonic. With one (long) breath, a singer produces two distinct frequencies.  To our ears it sounds like two people are voicing sound, the higher pitched voice making an ethereal whistle.

A final example of musical illusions can be heard in the fugues of the German Baroque composer J.S. Bach (1685-1750).  A fugue is a type of intricate composition for several musical voices (or musical lines) in which each voice has its own independent melody that coexists and interacts with those of the other voices.  In a fugue, a theme is introduced by one voice, then picked up by the other voices as they enter, one by one, in different pitch registers.  Once all the voices are in and chattering away, the fugal texture can sound a little chaotic but it all holds together through careful musical design.

If you listen to Bach’s (unfinished) Art Of Fugue (composed circa 1740s), you can hear the four distinct voices enter one at a time and make a multi-part musical conversation.  What is interesting in terms of aural illusions, however, is how your ear, upon hearing a voice entering the texture (for instance, voice two enters at 0:12), tracks that voice for a while as it articulates the fugue’s theme.  This narrowing of your attention on one fugal voice–would Macknik and Martinez-Conde call it auditory “framing”?–continues until you are distracted by a new voice making its entrance (at 0:20) and then yet another one (at 0:30).  The magic of a great fugue composer like Bach is to design a musical texture that can guide your attention in a way that is satisfyingly challenging.

As with the magician’s art, engaging music presents us–with or without our consent–with a set of perceptual problems to figure out, whether they be inherent patterns, phantom overtone melodies, or fugal counterpoint equations.

On Grid Matrix Sequencers: The ToneMatrix

The most exciting game for me is the space game, the search of possible space shapes, that is to say the logical and concrete building of various layouts.”
– Ernő Rubik, inventor of the Rubik’s Cube

If there is a guiding shape for electronic music making in our time, surely it’s the grid matrix–that 4×4-, 8×8-, or 16×16-squared box into which we program musical events.  The grid matrix almost seems like the two-dimensional descendent of Ernő Rubik’s glorious 3-D mechanical puzzle, the Rubik’s Cube:

Just look around the electronic musical instrument landscape over the last thirty years and you’ll see the grid matrix everywhere.  For example, there’s the classic Akai MPC sequencer–

the Novation Launchpad–

and the ultra-minimal Monome controller–

to name just a few.

Yet another spin on the grid matrix is an internet instrument called the ToneMatrix. Developed by André Michelle, the ToneMatrix is a sine wave synthesizer triggered by a 16-step sequencer.  The 16 horizontal steps control where a note occurs in the 16 pulse (or 4/4 meter) timeline and the 16 vertical steps allow the user to trigger different pitches.  How do you “play” the ToneMatrix?  Just click anywhere on the grid and listen to the music develop!  (I would love to see an instrument like this used to study creativity among infants:  What kinds of patterns would they build?)

Notice that as you click more and more buttons on the grid, the music gradually grows in density and syncopation.  To my ear, the sounds made on this machine have an uncanny similarity to the additive structures of American composer Steve Reich’s music, reminding me of something his fellow composer John Adams once said about minimalism: that it was the first true machine music.

Click here to go to the ToneMatrix.

On Play

Play, I’ve come to realize, is a favorite word of mine.  In no particular order, here are some possible contexts for it:

He plays that piano well.

The book’s title was a play on words.

My dog is playful.

No worries: we were just playing around.

You just got played.

The musicians were playing off of one another.

Play with the ideas until they fit and make sense.

Play is a favorite word because good things tend to grow out of play, and by “good things” I mean interesting and useful things. Play is usually fun, too.

I wrote about play in an earlier post on this blog, but lately I’ve been thinking about it again in the context of composing.  You see, my process is usually to sit down at the computer and just start playing around–in the sense of randomly listening through and trying out sounds.  Simple.  The mindset feels like that of a young child grappling with different-shaped blocks, trying to figure out what goes with what.  Are there rules to this play?  No, not really.  Whatever catches my ear (as if my ears might fly away like butterflies if not so caught) becomes sufficient reason to jump into capture mode (now the potential musical idea is the butterfly liable to get away if I don’t act fast), quickly experiment with some patterns and then hit record and improvise.  At this point, I’m still in a play state, only it’s kind of like I’m under self-surveillance too–observed by my own critical ear.  It remains play though because I feel as if I don’t know what I’m doing: I’m in new territory and don’t know where I’m going.  It’s fun in a slightly scary kind of way.

After this moment of recording under self-surveillance I often lose that sense of play as I begin judging what I’ve done.  First thoughts to materialize in my mind: “That’s kind of lame.”  Or a shrug: “Whatever.”  Or sometimes I like what I’ve done because it sounds vital: “I really like this!”  But whatever its tenor, self-judgement is corrosive, at least at this stage of the game.  At later stages, though, it’s a useful tool.

In his novel Television, Jean-Philippe Toussaint articulates two distinct stages of artistic process:

“The first, subterranean, is a gestational process, demanding looseness and flexibility, a game and open mind, in order to fuel the handling of new ideas and new materials, while the second is soberer, more orderly, requiring method and discipline, austerity and rigor; this is the process that takes over when it comes time to put the [work] into its definitive form” (100).

For me, play is part of what Toussaint calls the “subterranean” and “gestational” process.  The trick, if that is the right word, is to forestall the “soberer” self-critiquing stage long enough for ideas to flower.  So I improvise–play–with an open mind.  Who knows where this is going?  Maybe nowhere.  The important thing is that for this very moment it feels new and holds my attention.

I have a lot of these musical beginnings (trapped butterflies!) stored as files on my computer’s hard drive.  They’re blueprints for full pieces to be completed down the road, but they also serve other, vaguer purposes.  Sometimes, when I’m doing something mundane like changing the water in the fish tank I listen to the sketches on loop mode, as if they’re already finished.  I’m listening, believe it or not, to try to get to know them.  They’re still strange to me and I’m trying to understand what essential feeling they embody.  Put in the form of a question: What is this thing?  Put in the form of a statement: I’m trying to let the music socialize and teach me something.  It strikes me that even as I generate these ideas I’m not all that well equipped to make sense of them.

So I take my time, listening and mulling things over.  It’s possible that this process–this trying to get a sense of what the sounds are all about–is as interesting as the compulsion to one day get the things finished.

And then, just when my listening starts moving away from play, I hit stop.