Lessons From Italo Calvino’s “Reading A Wave”

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If I were a fictionalist, I would write in the analytical-introspective manner of Italo Calvino (1923-1985). In Calvino’s novel Mr. Palomar, we follow one man’s attempts to increase his inner awareness by increasing his consciousness of his surroundings. Mr. Palomar is a practicing phenomenologist who tries to understand the world through all of its perceived details and in each brief, self-contained chapter we read Mr. Palomar’s meditations on various topics. My favorite part of the novel is “Reading A Wave” (a sub-section of the chapter “Mr. Palomar On the Beach”) in which Calvino unpacks Mr. Palomar’s experience trying to describe the difficult to describe experience of watching a single ocean wave.

Mr. Palomar could charitably be described as a nervous control freak, and one of his strategies for dealing with the noise of the world is to reduce it by framing it in particular ways. In Mr. Palomar’s “desire to avoid vague sensations, he establishes for his every action a limited and precise object”, hoping that “the key to mastering the world’s complexity [is] by reducing it to its simplest mechanism.” But framing a single ocean wave is a difficult perceptual task that involves “separating it from the wave immediately following, which seems to push it and at times overtakes it and sweeps it away.” A wave is never in isolation and you can’t look at one wave “without bearing in mind the complex features that concur in shaping it and the other, equally complex ones that the wave itself generates.” Even so, Mr. Palomar believes he can somehow focus on the essence of a single wave at one point in time—to “simply see a wave–that is, to perceive all its simultaneous components without overlooking any of them.”

Finding it difficult to isolate a single wave, Mr. Palomar “now tries to limit his field of observation” by imagining a larger, 10 by 10 meter square for analysis. Within this frame “he can carry out an inventory of all the wave movements that are repeated with varying frequency within a given time interval.” But this too is exhausting  work, because a lot happens within any arbitrarily chosen section of the ocean. By the end of the story Calvino reveals that the idealistic goal of Mr. Palomar’s observation exercise is to hack his own faculties of noticing: “Is this perhaps the real pursuit that Mr. Palomar is about to achieve? To make the waves run in the opposite direction, to overturn time, to perceive the true substance of the world beyond sensory and mental habits?”

As I read “Reading A Wave” it struck me as an excellent model for thinking through the difficulty of describing and writing about musical experience. The problem, simply put, is that music never stays still. It’s nothing but ceaseless movement. Even a “static” drone is continuous vibration over time. Like the breaking ocean waves, music ebbs and flows over durations. Another problem with music is that so much happens at once. It’s often composed of simultaneities. Even a simple song with voice and accompaniment contains several lines to pay attention to. And what about a fugue? Or polyrhythmic drumming? Maybe writing about music is like dancing about architecture!

What I take from “Mr. Palomar” is the intensity of his attempts to describe a single wave. Even if his enterprise is somewhat futile, I like that Palomar goes all in trying to pay attention to as many details as he can notice. I like too that he has established a “limited and precise object”—even if his choice of object is perhaps too fluid to submit to anything longer than a momentary descriptive capturing. Whatever the anxious origins of his motivations for perceptual precision, Mr. Palomar is doing the Difficult Critical Work of framing the world around him so to slow it down just long enough so he can take some of it in.

You can read “Mr. Palomar” here.

Music As Perception

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(Birds over the parking lot at Ikea.)

Music has many practical uses, among them: it organizes us into communities, soundtracks our rituals and every day routines, accompanies our films, sells our products, and so on.

But perhaps music’s most fundamental purpose is perceptual: music exercises our attention this way and that, stretching our body-minds in multiple dimensions, urging us to feel as we think and think as we feel, to hear emotions in the sounds, inherent rhythms in the rhythms, traces of harmonies in the melodies, making us wonder how it is exactly that foreground and background interpenetrate so. When it’s firing on all cylinders, music is like a virtual workout for our senses.

Each week as I plow through new releases on Spotify—and I do mean plow: sometimes I only last fifteen seconds with a new piece of music (sigh)—I think about what keeps my attention in music. At the risk of circular reasoning, I would say that what keeps my attention is music that makes considerable perceptual demands. Specifically, I like music that is not necessarily difficult but nevertheless creates some kind of perceptual magic. This isn’t magic in a mystical sense, but in the sense described by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde in their book, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions: magic as a practice that orients our attention in controlled ways, “creating ‘frames’ or windows of space to localize where and what we attend to” (66). (Read more about their book here.) 

As I listen to new music I’m hoping to hear a track that creates a unique frame for my attention, something that enchants and makes me go, Oh, what’s this? How does that work? What’s going on? I move through the micro-style of the moment (e.g. double-time hip hop hi hats, EDM-esque breakdowns, hyper-tuned vocals), the most streamed releases of the week, the re-issues, the new classical interpretations, and the endless new spins on established pop and rock and classical moves. I listen while waiting, trying to be patient, trying to take in more than fifteen seconds, hoping to hear something that works on me like a magician’s baffling sleight of hand.

One Way To Listen To Music: Notes On Mark Fell’s “Multistability 6-B”

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One way to listen to music–and by to I mean up and over and through and around music–is to imagine it as proposing a set of ideas for our consideration. From this perspective we can think about any music as sonically embodying, modeling, and organizing itself through these ideas. As we listen the ideas become present through the evanescent flow of the music as its sounds resonate and evaporate over time.

Mark Fell’s “Multistability 6-B” (henceforth M6B) is composed of just a few synthetic sounds: warbling synth, traces of a bell-like aura, hand claps, a pitched hi hat sped up into white noise, and a stuttering kick drum that effectively doubles as a gritty bass. As I listened to the track and wondered about the sources of its enchantment I took to trying to focus on the ideas the music’s flow seemed to embody. Could I enumerate them? I can try. First, and most noticeably, M6B incorporates displacement–parts that you expect to be in one place seemingly are and aren’t at the same time. Sometimes this appears to be a function of the placement of individual sounds, other times a matter of the piece’s overall fluctuating tempo. I first noticed this with the piece’s hand claps: they seem to be squarely on 2 and 4 but then keep sliding over ever so slightly in one direction or another, a detail I confirmed only when trying to snap along with my fingers. Second, M6B uses repetition and stasis: the same parts–displaced or not through placement or tempo–keep going and going which creates a pleasing sense of stability. Except sometimes this going and going is subtly more than that, which brings us to a third idea, contraction and elongation, which I noticed somewhere around 1:42, where that stuttering kick drum first begins changing the length of its phrase, as if opening and closing. Though these contracting and elongating fluctuations are continuous in the music I noticed some major ones beginning around 5:00 until the end of the seven minute piece. It’s one of the oldest musical devices: play a phrase, then make it progressively shorter or longer. There’s a mathematical logic to this kind of transformation that is always pleasing to behold, no? This brings us to a fourth idea, density: those stuttering kick drum fills and hi hat speeding into a hi hat blur fill a lot of the music’s space; the keyboard and hand clap parts are merely tracing broad outlines on top. A fifth idea is what we might call spatiality or the stereo sense produced by the warbling synth and the bell-like aura: we hear those parts subtly bouncing from one ear to another which lends the piece space (perhaps a respite from the kick drum and hi hat density) through another kind of motion. All this leads to a final idea suggested by the music: utility. This may be the most important question to ask of any music we encounter. With regards to Mark Fell’s M6B: What is this music for? You can’t dance to it. It isn’t ideal for selling cars. It’s not a love song. Yet it is tonal, consonant, kinetic and organized–the opposite of noise. I like this music because it perceptibly and beautifully grasps at things, moving this way and that, provoking us to think about the modes of thinking contained within itself.

On The Tour De France And Time

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“Time passed indifferently, barely leaving a trace.” – Haruki Murakami,
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

“For these riders, time is running out.” – Phil Leggett

Though the event ended a few days ago, the last few weeks had me watching a lot of Le Tour de France. (I also wrote about Le Tour two years ago here.) By turns enthralling and humdrum, the cycling race put me in a zone while giving me stuff to think about. While watching this year’s race I thought about why I enjoy it so much. Some of the obvious reasons: the spectacular scenery, my recognition as an endurance enthusiast that the cyclists are pumping out mile after mile of steady speed, wattage, and high heart rates, and of course, the magnificent play-by-play commentary, especially the careful words of veterans Phil Leggett and Paul Sherwen. Phil is particularly good; he could narrate the goings on of a bee hive and I’d watch, totally entranced. But a deeper reason for my affection for the TDF is that it slows down my sense of time.

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Clocking in at twenty-one days, the TDF is the longest televised sporting event. For some two thousand miles, it just goes and goes and goes. For most of July you can tune in every morning and see cyclists snake their way through the French countryside and mountains. Progress–for both the cyclists and you the viewer—appears slow. On any given day at any given moment not a lot seems to be happening, in part because the distances the cyclists must traverse are so immense. Those aerial helicopter views of the peloton give you a sense of the vastness of the natural landscapes of forest, rock, and sky against which the cyclists appear as mere specks, pedaling away.

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My sense of time shifts when I watch the TDF. I notice change in much more gradual increments than what I’m used to, gauging progress happening so slowly, so imperceptibly, sometimes with the threat of potential drama up ahead (incoming bad weather, a steep decline), but usually nothing once we actually get there. And then I reach a point during the day’s TV coverage where I don’t care so much that it’s even a race and that the athletes and their teams are fiercely competing to come out on top. The TDF has become pure process, a very slow rhythm (distance traveled) with very fast subdivisions (the cyclists’ pedaling cadence). In a welcome change from my everyday soundscape, the race is like a music without sound, a performance that begins in one place, takes you on a gradual journey, and then ends when it’s done.

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On Peter Mendelsund’s “What We See When We Read”

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Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read: A Phenomenology With Illustrations is a remarkable study of perception in the experience of reading. Just his book’s title suggests, Mendelsund explores what exactly it is that we “see” in our minds eye when we read. It’s an interesting question or set of questions really–What do we imagine when we read words on the page? Does each word trigger a micro-vision in out minds eye, or does the triggering happen in the spaces between words? “Is it that we imagine the most, or the most vividly, when an author is at his most elliptical or withholding? (In music, notes and chords define ideas, but so do rests)” (30). This book is full of probing insights and musings like these that stop you in your tracks and make you think.

Mendelsund makes a few references to music in his book, no surprise given that he’s a trained classical pianist. This background in music and his general analytical mind may explain how he views characters in novels “like a set of rules that determines a particular outcome” (34) and how “we hear more than we see while we are reading (39). Page by page, What We See When We Read methodically yet playfully investigates the reading experience through examples culled from the Greats–from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky to Virginia Woolf to Joyce and Kafka. And each of these examples is graphically illustrated in a way that demonstrates the very concepts they embody. What do those and other authors actually tell us through their writing–as opposed to what we read and imagine through it? This engaging phenomenology by one the publishing industry’s leading graphic designers sets out to engage this territory.

Being musically oriented, I was most taken by Mendelsund’s discussions that offer insight on the musical experience. For example, when he talks of reading bringing one into “a liminal space”–a “polydimensionality” of being in many places at once (61)–I immediately thought, but of course, this is what listening to music is like too. Words are also like musical notes in that they each have contexts. In music, add a second note to a single tone and you generate the context of a chord by which to understand the two sounds together. And the element of time is key to both reading and music listening. Our perception in both depends on being able to time travel back and forward to help us make sense of the passing literary or sonic moment. “In order to make sense of a book’s words and phrases we must think ahead when we read–we must anticipate” (94)…At once, we read a sentence, read a few sentences ahead, keep track of what we’ve already read, and imagine events yet to come” (104). For Medelsund, reading “is not a sequence of experienced ‘now’s” (107)–it feels more flowing than that. And of course, that’s one of music’s supreme charms too: to make sequences of notes conjure a seamless and emotionally powerful virtual environment that makes ideal use of the passing of time.

So what do authors bring to our table? They orchestrate the experience and guide our imaginations: “The author teaches me how to imagine, as well as when to imagine, and how much” (125). When the textual experience is calibrated just right, it feels so real because it’s as if all the details could be no other way. Or as Medelsund puts it, “My delight is my tribute to the author’s having paid close attention to the world” (136). But the reader is the other crucial part of how writing generates its meaning. In an illustration that depicts a conductor through whose transparent body we can see a concert audience, Mendelsund draws on the metaphor of performance to illustrate: “We perform a book–we perform a reading of a book. We perform a book, and we attend the performance….(As readers, we are both the conductor and the orchestra, as well as the audience)” (160). In other words, reading is an active process of meaning-making, obviously, but also an act of trust and of faith even: “When we read, it is important that we believe we are seeing everything” (162). There’s a lot at stake in the act of reading insofar as no matter what the subject, we get to inhabit the consciousness of another. “Books allow us certain freedoms–we are free to be mentally active when we read; we are full participants in the making (the imagining) of a narrative” (192).

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By a certain point in Medelsund’s book, it becomes clear that he’s a believer in a view that novels aren’t really representational at all. In a passage that reminded me of the music of J.S. Bach, the author frames it thusly: “The relational, nonrepresentational calculus is where some of the deepest beauty in art is found. Not in mental pictures of things, but in the play of elements” (245). In other words, when we read or listen to music, “we don’t see meaning” (265); rather, meaning is something created out of the work’s component parts. Here, Mendelsund gets increasingly abstract, wondering whether we can “picture the medium or dimension in which things reside? (281), and muses about the role of memory in our imagining: “Memory is made of the imaginary; the imaginary made of memory” (299). He also returns to musical examples, drawing on American composer Aaron Copland’s three levels of listening–the sensuous, the expressive, and the semantic/musical (310)–to think through how we read through what is essentially a “nebula of illusory material” (342).

In the end, we read and listen and manage to make sense out of the words or sounds before us through an act of synthesis. “It is the synthesis that we know. (It is all we know.)” Writers and composers and readers and listeners are all synthesizers. “Authors are curators of experience. They filter the world’s noise, and out of that noise they make the purest signal they can–out of disorder they create narrative” (402). Similarly, readers take what they can from the words, conjuring something the way eyesight merges two separate images into the illusion of one. “Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read” (415). In music too, something is said and that something is heard and interpreted by a listener. Hopefully–remarkably–meaning arises from this exchange. Mendelsund ends his delightful book with the same literary example he began with, pointing out that, as is so often the case, what is there–on the page, in the music–and what we perceive to be there are not the same thing. We think we see or hear something clearly, but it was always blurred.

On Music For Thought: Dub (Re)Mixing As A Metaphor For Mindfulness

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After reading Paul Sullivan’s excellent Remixology (Reaktion Books, 2014), a history of dub music and dub aesthetics from Jamaica to their infection of electronic musics in cities and scenes around the world, it struck me that remixing is an interesting metaphor for cultivating mindfulness.

Dub pioneers such as Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby, The Scientist, and others innovated ways of creating instrumental versions of popular songs. In the recording studio, these producers and sound engineers dismantled tracks and put them back together in altered forms known as “versions” or “dubs.” The technology they used in their work was the standard equipment of the studio from the late 1960s until quite recently: the multitrack mixing console, magnetic tape, and effects processing units. What Perry and others achieved with their best versions was nothing short of game-changing, especially for anyone interested in electronic music, groove, and remixing. In a way, those Jamaican dub pioneers were the first modern music hackers.

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The notion of “life-hacking” is popular these days insofar as our interest in quantifying and optimizing ourselves physically, cognitively, and otherwise increasingly seems like a useful and progressive thing to do. It’s in this spirit that I suggest thinking metaphorically about the processes of the dub remixers as containing concepts that can be applied to our lives.

To start, consider some dub remixing techniques and aesthetics:

stripping things down.
The remixer mutes parts, silences voices, and reveals the essence of the music.

substituting one element for another, recontextualizing.
The remixer plays with different sounds, re-arranging and having them play new roles.

foregrounding groove.
Stripping down the music the remixer reveals its bass and drum rhythmic backbone.

EQing to emphasize or shape sounds.
The remixer brings out various frequencies to reveal sound colors or timbres that were in the mix all along, just hidden.

creating space by adding reverb and delay effects.
The remixer builds a huge, immersive environment for the music, letting it bounce off virtual surfaces at various rates of speed and play.

noticing malleability, fungibility.
The remixer finds every musical element flexible to the nth degree, capable of shape-shifting and mutation.

engaging creativity, imagination, audacity.
The remixer uses the music–as much as the music uses the remixer?–as an experiment in re-design and thinking anew.

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Practically speaking, how exactly would one apply these dub concepts to one’s life? I’m not sure. Scanning through the list though, I notice that they’re all fundamentally oriented around perception and altering elements–of music, of consciousness–with the goal of changing how they appear to our senses. This alone is music for thought and maybe useful advice in other realms too.

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David Hockney On Perspective

I’ve been reading more Lawrence Weschler lately, this time his engaging study of the painter David Hockney, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney (University of California Press, 2009). I first encountered Hockney’s work in the mid-1990s at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit was a show of Hockney’s English countryside landscapes. They seemed simple on their surface, but there was something going on in them with regards to perspective: the works seemed to capture multiple viewpoints at once, drawing you in. To make a musical analogy, they were visually polyphonic. I bought a poster and had it framed.

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Anyway, what makes Weschler’s book engaging is its story of Hockney’s seemingly boundless obsession with perspective in visual art. One fulcrum for this obsession is his interest in how and why European art underwent a profound shift in perspective, precision, and realism around the 1420s. Hockney thinks the reason is due to the use of optical projection devices. Hockney, who even wrote a book about his (controversial) theory, Secret Knowledge (2001), expresses his curiosity about the matter in the form of a question: “How come awkwardness seems to disappear completely from Western European art for three hundred years and then just as quickly reappear? It all just happens by itself? That would be the loopy theory” (133).

Weschler traces how Hockney arrived at his interest and along this journey are several series of works that I found interesting. One early series consisted of photo collages built out of dozens of Polaroids. Hockney took photos of his subject matter–his living room, a swimming pool, a California highway, the Grand Canyon–from a multitude of viewpoints. Then he organized the photos in a way that requires the viewer to slow down and move through the pictorial space, one segment after another–back and forth, up and down–always scanning over time. Here are two:

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One interesting thing about these collages: each photo is a self-contained viewpoint. Another thing: the effect is at once unrealistic in that you notice the artifice of Hockney’s technique and also hyper realistic in that you find yourself noticing that this is actually how we see the world: in and as a series of glances, instants, and angles that enter our field of perception for a flash before we turn our attention elsewhere. The effect is pure art: simple, yet it gets you thinking.

As I read and looked at the pictures I thought about how all this might pertain to musical practice. (I also wrote about perspective in music here.). Music, of course, is different from visual art in that it requires time to unfold. You can’t listen to a symphony in a second–you have to wait it out and keep paying attention, moment by moment. But the fact that some musics–intensely polyrhythmic musics or polyphonic musics, for instance–make deep perceptual demands on us insofar as they pack a lot of information into each moment reminded me of how Hockney’s works seem to chase after ways to model themselves on how we apply our senses over time.

Incidentally, when Hockney spoke of the “awkwardness” in art reappearing after three hundred years, he was referring to Cubism. Picasso, Hockney told Weschler, wasn’t trying to “deconstruct” his subject matter. Rather, he was trying to faithfully convey a sense of how we behold the world around us. “The monocular claim to univalent objective reality is falling away once and for all,” he says, “and we are being thrust back on ourselves, forced to take responsibility for the way we make and shape our realities, with eye and hand and heart” (143).