The Music of the Spheres

Day 94: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

It’s cloudy outside in Milan.  I don’t really feel like writing.  I think I’ll just curate other people’s words today.

Quotation 1

Allow me to start you off with a piquant taste of French existentialism, as it were.  The vintage year on this one falls somewhere in the 17th century.  Of course we all know the French have been existential for at least that long:

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”

-Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Quite memorable, isn’t it.  I know this line about the emptiness of the universe has become kind of trite and overused, but I think there’s a good reason for that.

It was inspiring enough for 20th century composer George Crumb to cite it in the preface to his piece Makrokosmos.

Quotation 2

But the naturalistic pessimism of the 20th century is really too much for me sometimes.

In the Middle Ages people used to think that the planets made music as they revolved around the Earth.  The proportions between their respective orbits created a perfect, mystical harmony called Musica Universalis or “Music of the Spheres.”

The ‘silence’ which frightened Pascal was, according to the [Medieval] Model, wholly illusory; and the sky looks black only because we are seeing it through the dark glass of our own shadow.  You must conceive yourself looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music.

-C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

Item 3

Well no… it really doesn’t.  Here’s what the proportions between the revolution frequencies of the eight planets really sounds like:

That’s the sound of a 20th century universe, the sound of humans and all living things gradually perishing into chaos.

Quotation 4

But that’s what imagination is for, right?

Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out—like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors.  But if you accepted the Medieval Model you would feel like one looking in.

-C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Maybe the godawful dissonance of the planets and all the apparent chaos of the universe is just a part of a larger harmony too great for us to perceive.

Quotation 5

That’s what early medieval philosophers proposed in response to the dualistic heresy known as Manichaeism.

Faced with the misgiving that in the world there may be established a dialectic of uncertain outcome between good and evil, the Scholastic tradition seeks to confirm the positivity of all creation, even in the apparent zones of darkness.

-Umberto Eco, Scritti sul pensiero medievale

Maybe that sounds like a naive proposal in modern times… maybe naivety is a good thing.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Sunshine

Day 93: Monday

Morning, Tim!

I’m glad to get back to it after a wonderful Easter break.

Sunshine is a beautiful thing. Nature thrives, and it makes a bit of America-nada possible. It makes you want to write poetry:

Life abundant, sharing space

Bird with a bow tie grins from ear to ear

Fluttering onward, twigs and sunshine

A sweaty beginning to the day

I’m most proud of stealing your ever present poetry reference to bow ties.

I do hope all is well in Italy, and I look forward to hearing of your springly adventures.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

More like America-nada

Day 92: Friday

Good morning Zak,

Zak, you’re too clever for me.  I think I must have spent twenty minutes mulling over your use of the letter ‘d’ before I got the pun.

Anyway, you raise a good question: is technology partially responsible for the Excess I’ve been whining about?

When I first got music notation software, I went through a phase of writing all my music directly into the computer.  Eventually I stopped that and went back to writing by hand before copying into a notation program.  The quality of my music improved drastically at that point.

I know correlation is not the same thing as causation.  But I do think there’s something to this…

A lot of music and art in general is predicated on the mechanism of pattern recognition.

“In effect aesthetic pleasure derives from the fact that the soul recognizes in the material the harmony of its own structure.”

—Umberto Eco (In reference to the views of Ugo di San Vittore)

I don’t know if the physical process of writing by hand makes it easier for me to recognize patterns.  At the very least, it makes the artistic processes much more intimate.

But patterns are a big deal.  The more arcane a pattern is, the more rewarding it is when our brain/soul recognizes it.  But if it’s too arcane, of course, there’s the danger that we won’t recognize it at all.

I’ve written before about the pattern of pairing love with death in medieval poetry:

“All I can say is that the collective wisdom of Western poets throughout history tells us that love is a kind of death.”

That’s maybe one of the most interesting patterns in Western literature.  It’s something that resonates with us all on a fundamental level.

That’s why people like the story of Paolo and Francesca so much.  Frankly I get a little annoyed by the excessive popularity of Inferno Canto V.  The fame of Francesca’s little vignette has tragically eclipsed the rest of the Divine Comedy in popular culture.  I went to Bergamo and saw this excessively Romantic depiction.

While the hipster in me is, as I said, a bit annoyed, I do understand why people like this kind of thing.  This story should be popular.  When we experience a piece like this, our soul recognizes in the material the harmony of its own structure.  We understand on a fundamental human level that life couldn’t really be a thing without love to the point of death.

That’s easy to recognize.  As far as other patterns go… a hyphen may be well advised.

Until Monday,

Tim

More like Americanada

Day 91: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

I really appreciated the context around ‘Americanata‘. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, but it seems like the connotations indicate a certain degree of excess, of some bizarre need for the over-stimulation Aquinas feared.

Obviously the pendulum swings both ways. We have discussed the balance of history, moving between extremes — in this case, minimalist to maximalist (ha). I’m terrible at the music trends, but the same happens in philosophy.

I think it proper to put that caveat forward, though in all honesty I intend to do nothing with it. I agree that we’re in a bit of a ‘maximalist’ society, raising the Americanata flag. And that it is so very distasteful. I spend part of the weekend cleaning out my closet, with a large bag of clothes I no longer need/wear. I look around the train and see many heads down, focused on screens (Though I see two rare objects that I’m not sure I could name — ancient cream things with black etchings, folded open. Still, a head down focused intently). I’ll likely watch a TV show or movie tonight, constantly entertained (or at least busy). There is a lot of excess. Be it ‘noise components, odd timbres, aleatory’ or the ridiculousness that is action scenes in movies, we ‘need’ lots of stimulation.

Yet you seem to dislike it as well. I’m sure many others agree. And under the guiding principle of “I want to enjoy things as much as I can”, I think many times it’s easy to fall prey to having others explain what will be most enjoyable. That’s where there exists a very, very lucrative advertising business — we don’t have to know what we want, others can simply tell us. And yet, it seems that we may just enjoy ourselves all the more if we considered the possibility that less is more.

I look forward to your piano piece.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

p.s. I realize Americada as a play on Americanata isn’t quite right. It’s not nothing I’m after, but Americaminimo doesn’t quite have the same effect…

p.s.s. How much is technology a culprit? Is it a phase that we simply haven’t figured out how to deal with it? Or it it here to stay?

Americanata

Day 90: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So I just picked up this book from the library.

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I can explain… it was an honest mistake.  I went to the bookstore the other day to pick up a different book, but they didn’t have it.  Then I saw this monster.  Umberto Eco’s Writings on Medieval Thought.  It was too late.  I had seen it!  How could I resist now?

IMG_1212

A sense of scale

I have to return it in a month, and the library has a strict “no backsies” policy—one of the many reasons I miss the old country.  *Sigh*  If it turns out to be half as good as I’m expecting I think I’ll have to go out and buy it.

Anyway, just starting to read this thing has got me thinking about a few things.  One of them is this: how intense does an experience need to be for us to enjoy it?

Thomas Aquinas was opposed to the use of instrumental music in Church.  He was afraid that the aesthetic rapture elicited by the music of instruments would be so overwhelming that it might prove an obstacle to focused worship.

Now Zak, I listen to a lot of medieval music… some of it with instruments… I don’t have a clue what this crazy old man was talking about.  I mean it’s very beautiful music.  That’s why I listen to it.  But distracting?  Enrapturing?

I guess what I’m saying is, what ever happened to the days when maximum euphoria consisted in a few notes plucked out on a lute?  Today I go to concerts, and people are adding laser shows, eight-channel surround-sound, live electronics…  Even the sounds themselves need extra spice.  We add noise components, odd timbres, aleatory…  It’s all great stuff.  But what happened to mere music?  You know, like pitches and rhythms… harmonies, if you wanna get fancy with it…

I have a flat-mate who watches TV on her computer while listening to music on her phone at the same time.  There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you want to do.  I’m a contemporary composer, so I’m used to noise.

The Italians have a word, americanata: “an action or behavior characterized by an unsophisticated taste for grandeur and ostentation, which is usually attributed to the Americans.”

If I have any ascetic impulse in me, it’s there out of selfishness, not moralism.  I want to enjoy things as much as I can.  That’s the only reason I’d prefer less over more.  I’m a fan of synesthesia.  It’s excess that bothers me.

I’m writing a piano piece of just chords.  One chord about every two to five seconds.  In between there’s nothing.  Just resonance.  I think it would go nicely with wine and dark chocolate, in an intimate setting, with friends.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

It’s like Uber for Healthcare

Day 89: Wednesday

Morning, Tim!

Though not feeling poetic today, I love when I have enough energy and mental capacity to thoroughly enjoy my work.

I’ve been working on Non-Emergency Medical Transportation (NEMT) solutions recently.

A bit of background, followed by why I’m interested:

NEMT has traditionally been provided by an array of parties — ranging from taxis to shuttle buses, volunteers to high-priced ambulances. These services are needed not only for patients but for health systems, insurers, and tax-payers. Because transportation to and from an appointment can be a binary limiter on whether someone is able to receive care, the patient certainly has a stake. Importantly, though, because the patient’s health might otherwise deteriorate, health systems and insurers should also care, as handling sickness before it worsens is in almost every case less costly — even if it means multiple visits. Surgeries, scans, lab tests — they are all more expensive than a simple office visit to ensure someone maintains health. Tax-payers in turn should care, as their dollars are going to providing services and care for substantive portions of the population, both young and old.

The challenge of providing transportation fascinates me. Not only because I can throw out tons of transportation puns, getting on a good roll before someone tells me to put on the brakes because they can’t handle it and I have to stop (That derailed quickly). And not just because everyone in my line of work is talking about ‘the next Uber for healthcare’ when in fact, Uber could be the next Uber for healthcare. No, it’s in part because there are substantive operational considerations (i.e. if a patient is late to an appointment and backs up everyone else; if a patient is sitting in a bed waiting to be discharged but doesn’t yet have a ride, and so the hospital cannot use that bed; etc.). Yet the above stakeholders could also be interested for numerous other reasons — perhaps brand (look at how convenient we are!), patient experience (no one likes to wait around), or to better keep a broad population healthy and happy (taking patients to the pharmacy, community center, or beauty salon). It can be not only an issue of ‘sexy’, new solutions like Uber to make headlines to further a health system’s reputation, but also applying that same technology to address the social issues arising as barriers for those who often need care the most.

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There are tons of companies flooding the space, and it’s an exciting time to be looking at this work. I think it’s most exciting because of it is so broadly applicable, with the ability to interest so many.

Until tomorrow,
Zak