Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Several friends have been passing around a recent NY Times articles about neurological studies and music. Naturally, it is fascinating stuff if you like working on cars. The article is called "Why Music Makes Our Brains Sing", and you can read it here.
My problem isn't with the research as such, but in the claims of the title and the general direction of the thought process. While "indie and electronic music" may very well stimulate dopamine release in Montreal hipsters, I'm not sure it actually tells us anything or explains "Why" music works. Forgive my naiveté, but the discovery that patterns and expectations from the auditory cortex are involved seems not to shocking a revelation. The article is all done with the requisite shibboleths like "ancient part of the brain" - as if part of my body is somehow older than the rest. Walking around with that ancient part of my brain has become an increasing burden, and I'm glad for some of the new handicap accessible entrances into the world of academic thought.
The authors provide an amazing explanatory chain. It reminds me of the man who woke up every morning and believed that the sun came up because he farted. Since the two events never occurred apart from each other, he made the obvious connection that they were in a causal relationship. Of course, when we explain something with a chain, it gets rather complicated.
Imagine me, as a neuroscience researcher, opening the hood of a car. I start learning about how the different parts work. I've observed that when fire and gas mix together dopamine is released - or energy, or something that makes the car go. There is a carburator that is carburating something, and a fan that spins to blow hot air on me while I'm researching. Once I've figured out what everything does, I'm still left with more questions about where the chain of events should end. I haven't yet figured out why gas burns, and why all the molecules in my left turn signal don't explode apart from each other when I touch them. Then once I understand that, I still have a longer chain to build because I have to figure out why the electrons aren't chasing the Heisenberg uncertainty principle off to Pluto, and whether there is a Higg-Boson particle that has an opinion on global warming.
But we don't really do that, do we? We just cut the chain off at some point and say, "Now it is explained." Of course there is no way of knowing whether or not our research is telling us whether what we observe is part of the causal chain. It's like someone studying the fleas that caused the bubonic plague saying, "I have discovered that the fleas have green eyes! That may or may not be significant in the long run, but for right now, it is enough to publish an article and secure funding for more research."
It reminds me of Chesteron who said, "They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically. They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing."
Of course, it could be that the fleas have green eyes for more amorous purposes. It could also be that Montreal hipsters don't like electronic music, but that listening to electronic music transforms you into a Montreal hipster. Really, it doesn't matter because, as the researchers point out, we are all just dopamine junkies motivated by ancient parts of our brain.
Fortunately for me, the younger parts of my brain are telling me that music works because it has magical powers. This seems to be a much more elegant and comprehensive explanation. While you are off trying to understand how I did my last trick, I will be conjuring up some new alchemy that will give you years more research to do.
Wednesday, June 05, 2013
Almost once a week, I seem to discover a composer that I've never heard of before. I'm not talking about 16th century French composers with fantastic names like Jean Bastard, Italian conglomerates monikered Accademico Bizzarro Capriccioso, or the unfortunately named mathematician Wilhelm Fucks whose ideas contributed to music theory. I'm talking about living composers that are writing excellent music right now. Not only are they writing music, they are winning contests and getting performed regularly in the U.S. and internationally.
I don't keep up with the latest up and coming composers as much as some, but I probably spend more time keeping track than a lot of musicians. That's appropriate because of my specific vocation as a composer. The thing is, I don't think it is very different in any discipline right now. I also work as an organist and conductor, and I find the same phenomenon happening in those fields. There seems to be an unending line of "stars" that I haven't discovered. I stumble upon them and say, "How is it that this person has done so much, and I never heard a single thing about them before."
All this is to say that it's important to remember that there are more people doing what you are doing - whatever your field - than have ever done it before. That can be a little intimidating if you think of the competition. In fields where there is a limited amount of work, it can be downright discouraging. When a small University position opens with a salary of $40,000, there might be 150 to 200 applicants.
At the same time, it is important to remember that there are also more people listening than ever before. When J.S. Bach had his most prominent job in Leipzig, it was a city of 20,000 people. It was a thriving city at the time, but it is fairly small by today's standards. I can say with some degree of confidence that more people have heard my music than heard Bach's during his lifetime. That's pretty crazy. I'm pretty content to be a kleinmeister and have my stuff packed up when I leave this earth. In the meanwhile, there is an incredible, new economy to uncover. As Robert Sirota said to me not long ago, "The important thing is to keep writing."
Monday, June 03, 2013
In my theological conversations with various and sundry people, it is often my wont to bring up an example of someone who presents a contrary point of view. On two occasions, I gave an example of a local evangelical Christian congregation as a group that didn't share my dialoge partner's point of view. Both times, the response was the same, "Yes, but that's not Christianity."
(I should point out that I am using the term "Evangelical"in its modern American context and not in its historical context where it simply meant Lutheran as opposed to Reformed.)
It is certainly true that every religion has groups that regularly self-identify as the authentic version of their faith. It is also true that finding someone that self-identifies as "evangelical" means finding someone that has little knowledge of the basic tenets of the historic faith about 90% of the time. (It's actually a fun game to ask an "evangelical"if they can name a single author or event that happened between say 100 C.E. and 1517 C.E.)
However, something about the whole thing makes me a little uneasy. I think the main reason I got uncomfortable was that both times I received the response, "But that's not Christianity," my immediate thought was, "I know. I was using it as a straw man. I don't really see much relation between what they are doing and the historic faith either."
Of course, I've just done what people are always accusing "evangelicals" of doing. I'm in the club, and you are out. I'm doing the real version of the thing, and you are doing your own made up version. Wherever those thoughts are coming from - and they are certainly coming from real places of hurt and frustration - they are not very reflective of a God who has reconciled the world unto himself. The fact that it was so easily verbalized by friends in different parts of the country means that it's a growing sentiment.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
When you are engaged in creative work, it is important to keep a close eye on what you are consuming. You tend to be severely influenced by what is feeding you. You will also tend to imitate the people that you hang around.
With this in mind, I started a project some time ago. On any day that I had time, I would start my musical day by meditating on a Bach Chorale. I sang through each of the parts. I made a quick Roman Numeral analysis. I made note of interesting voice leading and spacing.
Today, I finally finished #371 in the Remienschneider book. Here are a few conclusions after looking in detail at every chorale that Bach harmonized.
Robert Helps used to do a composition excercise with me that he used to do with Roger Sessions. Take a chorale. Harmonize it. Compare it to what Bach did. See how much you suck. Bob would say, "Whatever you do, you'll probably find that Bach was more adventurous than you." That's still true.
More than anything, I've also found that I tended to move into distant areas before properly establishing my home. The chorales are like concentrated lessons on how musical motion works. They teach the balance between unity and diversity, motion and stasis, and above all, how far you can stretch something without breaking it.
I also think it's a good project for any musician to do. It has given me hours of pleasure in aesthetic contemplation. I also now know which one is the best one, but I can't tell you. You'll have to go through them yourself.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
It's an excellent question, but I think it's the wrong one. When I started my masters degree program, I experienced writers block for the first and only time in my life. My very wise composition teacher at the time was Marty Sweidel. He said, "Kurt, this can often happen when you start your Masters degree. You are all blocked up because you are trying to write the great American Symphony. Just write stuff, and stop trying to be brilliant."
A much better question for people involved in creative activity is, "Is it honest?" That's a tough question to answer sometimes. It's especially hard to explain to someone outside your discipline. I find it incredibly difficult to explain to anyone why a G# in this spot feels like some sort of compromise. I imagine it is the same for other disciplines. That little spot of grey in the painting makes it less comprehensible but more "right" somehow. A little bit of Teutonic sentence structure, while obfuscating the main point - and at the same time clarifying it, works.
For me, if I am focussed on being honest, I cease to worry about whether what I am doing is derivative. It necessarily will be derivative in some spots because I am participating in a tradition. Originality grows out of honesty because we are unique. Let me say that again. People create unique things because people are unique things. It's only when we are pretending that we are not that we get into trouble. When you set out to be original, you already have your eye on someone else. That is the death knell of creativity.
Friday, May 24, 2013
As I listened to the group, I found that they sang quite beautifully, and they were working pretty hard to listen. When you have a group making music at that level, your job is to invite them to listen to each other in new ways that will give them insights into the music. Your first tool for inviting people to listen is still the gesture. If the gesture fails, you may speak.
I find that the main issue when listening to a group of highly trained performers is simply one of inviting them to make space for others. It is often the case that an individual gets so excited about their own part that his/her focus turns to the beauty that they are creating on their own at the expense of the beauty of the whole. In this situation, it is the conductors job to make space for the whole and to help the individuals see how their part fits into the larger context.
For me, it is enough to invite the musicians to listen in a new way and trust their musicianship enough to make the necessary corrections.
It is an excellent lesson for life. Even when you are excited about the cool thing that you are doing, you need to make room for others.
Here is a performance of the piece from earlier this year.