music theory and science

Recently, I got some feedback from a well-known music theorist regarding the theory I'm developing, the Sound-Energy Aggregate. He agrees with the premise, of energy contours of individual parameters (musical elements like harmony, register, dynamics, and so forth) combining to create an aggregate effect in the mind of the listener. He points out, though, that the primary difficulty of developing the concept as a full-blown theory is quantifying the interaction of parameters.

While this is a valid point, it raises a whole flurry of thoughts. First, on the affirmative side, it means that although relationships may be difficult to quantify in their interaction, it's a fully agreeable, easy recognition of the concept's reality: music is multi-dimensional. It would seem to be actually testable in the classic (unreal) isolation of parameters, asking a lot of people about energy change during examples, etc. And I'll admit that I'd actually like to do that if I found the right partners to work with.

But it does strike me as kind of odd, and a bit unnecessary, to insist that a theory of music be produced and tested using the ordinary set of scientific methods. I am currently reading Northrop's Logic of the Sciences and Humanities, which admits to many means of pursuing inquiry. Might it be possible to create a means of creating and testing hypotheses using contemplative methods? Is the phenomenological necessarily beyond the realm of true science?

on composing

A brief thought or two on composing, because I simply must make an entry on 10/11/12!

I have gradually realized that my whole approach to composing would have to be described as contemplative. First, a teacher long ago recommended an incredible approach to the beginning stages of composing a piece. That involves simply collecting ideas over a period of time, not judging them, just writing them down as fully as possible, and then one day beginning to go back through them and see if they are still alive. If so, they grow. If not, they go to the back of the pack. He called it following the path of least resistance, a wise way to get something delicate underway!

Another part of my process is more wholly of my own origin. It involves filling my head with the things I would like to have happen, either in a piece long term or in a given day, and then lying down. If I fall asleep, fine. But what so frequently happens is that the ideas start to swirl around in my head when sleep approaches, and insights, connections, and realizations begin to emerge. I jump up, write them down, and am suddenly deeply enmeshed in composing! Nowadays I use meditation more often than napping, but either way is a potential non-judgmental entry point to what is a process filled with making little judgments!

contemplative listening

I would define contemplative listening as the unity of doing/not doing, listening/not listening. Being fully informed, the mind loaded with knowledge, technical information, or not, yet possessing the ability to listen as though one were a complete novice, with a beginner's mind. Such is not an easy place to be, to stay, and that's why people practice it every day for longer or shorter periods of time, in meditation. Riding that wave, that fine razor's edge between doing and not doing, or listening and not listening, is difficult. But the rewards are deep, pervasive, and exhilarating.

Whatever method of musical analysis, when held in that way, gets to insight. The SEA method seeks to understand the energy flow by considering all or many energy threads at once, as elaborated elsewhere, to create a phenomenological account of music as it unfolds in time. Discoveries made can lead to other types of analysis, or other types of analysis can lead to an understanding of the energy contour of a given parameter (musical element).

I think frequently of the old story of the emperor's new clothes as an analog to the state of contemporary music and musical analysis. Adopting a holistic, contemplative mode of listening would predictably lead to a more truthful account of what one hears, shining light to expose the illusion created by thought, concepts, or fashion.

Another of my favorite sayings regarding music, or anything, is:

The obvious is in control: expose it!

It should be pretty obvious when the emperor in fact has no clothes, right? But we all have found ourselves at some time or other having not acknowledged the obvious and winding up in a place of utter illusion. And often, the most obvious musical factors are controlling our perception of energy, creating affect in a passage, with more subtle factors not nearly so important as our thinking wants them to be. Of course, the extraordinarily subtle can be profound in its impact. Truth seems to be a matter of balance: hearing fully, processing honestly.

So, with a little compassion for ourselves, compassion for others, let's have the courage to face truth and listen to music as honestly as we can.

contemplation of the ideal form

It occurs to me that one of the most likely ways that the idea of contemplating music might be construed is in the sense of pondering something. If that angle is pursued, one is then working with music from the memory, music out of its physical embodiment as sound, removed from its normal medium of time. This would point to the other primary approach to musical analysis, linked to the Platonic concept of the ideal form. The way I have gotten to a consideration of contemplating music is from the other side, of course, the phenomenological angle from which I seek to understand the process of listening. It may just be that the role of contemplation is to help bridge the mental/intellectual gap between these divergent viewpoints. Is it the way to unify doing/not doing I wrote of day before yesterday? Is it the better corollary, the real listening/not listening? As nice and neat as that solution may appear, it seems to be an illusion, and not in the same realm as the doing/not doing of Zen in and of itself. Possibly to listen, then sit with the awareness of what was just heard is a close analog, but thinking about the music per se is not, even though it may be helpful, productive, or enjoyable.

what I have learned from cats

Grasping at a thought is like grasping at a cat you want to sit on your lap: if you catch it, it's not a happy, lap-sitting cat! The same goes for grasping at music as you hear it, if you ask me.

questions, thinking silently out loud

Today I am rolling around questions that have arisen of late. The main thing on my mind is the question of pure, open-minded listening and the listening favored, encouraged, taught in the world of classical musical analysis. We’re so accustomed to what one might call active listening -- listening for things... things to criticize, to comment upon, be delighted about, to like, to dislike, technical items -- that it seems as though the kind of pure listening I commented upon in a recent post is at odds with it. I certainly see problems with many facets of the standard active-listening paradigm, for we are very aware nowadays that we perceive what we know, what we expect to find. Much of the critical listening that occurs reinforces elitist notions of musical value, finds ways to express fixed ideas of what is good compositional practice, simply offer up a person’s musical prejudices. So what role does a total-awareness sort of listening have to play in a musician’s life or training?

First, it seems to be a reality check, an attempt to hear music holistically. The realization from quantum physics that the instrument of measurement affects that which is measured is equally apt for listening to music, so it seems self-evident that choosing another approach regularly will serve musicians well. It is important, I think, allow oneself to fully hear
what is, and not just the patterns we already know and value. After all, if we do fully hear, we have our memories to work with, and if we don’t interfere with the listening, our memories may just hold a more accurate version of what we’ve heard. And if we’re analyzing music, we can always listen again. In my class, Contemplating Music, we talk extensively about what we’ve heard in an open listening session. Given what we hear, or what we think we hear, we then listen again, primed with questions. At that point, no one would really claim that our listening was completely open, unfettered by concepts (if it ever was!)

The issue seems to be, as is often the case, one of balance. Balance between the active sort, trained listening, and the total-awareness sort, holistic listening. It would almost fit to say listening vs. non-listening, like the unity of doing and not doing at the heart of Zen. But I can’t bring myself to say that what I am advocating is not listening, at least not just yet.